October 30, 2003 - Origin of 'Murphy's Law'
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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- the story of one of life's little truths.
RS: It's a law we all live under, and it goes this way: "If anything can go wrong, it will." It's known as Murphy's Law.
AA: Murphy was Edward Murphy. He was a no-nonsense military officer, a captain. But he was also an engineer, based at an aircraft laboratory in Ohio. This was in the early days of the space program and high-performance flight.
RS: We learned all this from Bill Sloat, a reporter at the Plain Dealer newspaper in Ohio. We saw a story he recently did on the history of Murphy's Law.
RS: So we called Bill up and had just started asking him questions, when, wouldn't you know it ...
SLOAT: "Can I start over for a minute? I've got to sneeze."
AA: "Go ahead, sneeze."
SLOAT: "I don't know why I had to sneeze."
RS: "Feel free."
AA: "If anything can go wrong, it will. [laughter]"
SLOAT: "Yeah, that's Murphy's Law."
RS: "And we'll pick up the story in the late 1940s."
SLOAT: "OK. So he's working at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in a laboratory. And so he was working on those machines that would spin people round and round and round, to test G-forces. Meanwhile, out at Edwards Air Force Base in California, there were engineers and they were building these rockets sleds and they would strap guys and dummies into them and then fire them down like a railroad track. I think sometimes they went faster than the speed of sound."
RS: "And what was the purpose of that?"
SLOAT: "They wanted to see how fast human beings could go before they turned into mush. But they also needed a way to measure how much gravity they were receiving. So Murphy built some gauges. And they attached them to this rocket sled and fired the sled, and then when they checked them, they registered zero. The sled worked and the guy who was riding it survived. But nobody knew how many G-forces he pulled, because the gauges malfunctioned."
RS: "So then what happened?"
SLOAT: "Murphy chewed out the guys who installed the gauges and said 'if those guys can do something wrong, they will.' And then a guy named George Nichols overheard this. Now this is in 1949, thereabouts. The aerospace engineers had their own lingo and they were always coining laws and things. So they came up with 'Murphy's Law.' And the guy said 'Oh we got us a new law,' Nichols said that.
A few weeks later, John Paul Stapp, the rocket sled pilot, was doing a press conference out at Edwards Air Force Base, and one of the reporters asked him -- this is the story. Well, the reporter says, 'Are you worried about this?' And Stapp says, 'No, we're careful not to violate Murphy's Law.' Well, nobody knew what Murphy's Law was, except the aerospace engineers. And it became sort of along the lines of 'if it can happen, it will happen.' That's how it -- the metaphor morphed into that out at Edwards."
RS: "So, was the gauge ever fixed? [laughter]"
SLOAT: "Murphy went back to Ohio, and the engineers out there got the gauges installed and they did work, yes."
RS: "So it was the technician’s fault?"
SLOAT: "Well, no, it was Murphy's fault -- or some of the technicians, or some of the technical people that were there thought it was Murphy's fault, because he should have checked the gauges to make sure they worked."
RS: "And if he had stayed, we might not have had this law."
SLOAT: "That's exactly right."
AA: "And this law has found its way around the world. You were telling me that you talked to someone in Russia about this?"
SLOAT: "Right, I sent an e-mail to a friend of mine, an electrical engineer and said 'do you know about Murphy's law?' And he sent me an e-mail back a couple of days later and said 'yes, we know that as the Law of Toast,' meaning that toast, the buttered side always falls down, or hits the ground. [laughter]"
RS: "So what do you think is the legacy of Ed Murphy?"
SLOAT: "That's a great question. You know, when I was working on this story, I started looking up Murphy's Law. And there's, if you get on the Internet or you go to the library, and I did both, and there's like all kinds of, you know, Murphy’s laws. There's a guy in California named Arthur Block who even compiles them and collects them, and he had some great examples. Here's my favorite, Hyman's Highway Hypothesis: The shortest distance between two points is usually under construction. [laughter]"
RS: "Should we leave it at that?"
SLOAT: "Yeah, I don't think you could top it."
AA: Bill Sloat is a newspaper reporter at the Plain Dealer in Ohio. Ed Murphy died in 1990 but he was honored this month with an Ig Nobel Prize. These are given at Harvard University for achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think.
RS: Now, if you can think of any of your own versions of Murphy's Law, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll read our favorites on the air.
AA: You can find all of our programs on our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I’m Avi Arditti.