The Murphy Behind Murphy's Law

Another victim of Murphy's Law (via iStock)
Another victim of Murphy's Law (via iStock) / Another victim of Murphy's Law (via iStock)

You know Murphy’s Law. You’ve probably even experienced it: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

But who was the poor sap who had such a crappy law named after him? Enter Ed Murphy. The good news is, Murphy wasn’t the screw-up. The bad news is, Murphy was angry at someone who was.

Back in the 1940s, the Air Force was running tests on rocket sleds at Edwards, their research and test facility in southern California. An engineer named Ed Murphy came out to assist with trials, and brought with him four sensors that were supposed to help with accurate G-force measurements. After going through all the effort of installing the sensors onto the harness, preparing the sled, manning the vehicles and getting it all properly launched, the crew discovered that the sensors had been installed completely backwards. After all of that prep work, the readings were totally unusable.

“If there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will,” Murphy reportedly grumbled. It’s something any disgruntled boss might say, so how, exactly, did Murphy manage to get a whole “law” attributed to him? One word: Reporters.

Several weeks after the faulty installation, Col. John Stapp held his first press conference. One of the reporters wondered how no one had been injured during the high-speed trials. “We do all of our work in consideration of Murphy’s Law,” Stapp replied. Of course, Stapp then had to explain what Murphy’s Law was, adding they had learned that “you had to think through all possibilities before doing a test.”

The rest is history ... but the truth is, Murphy’s Law was around long before it was named after Edward Murphy. Mathematician Augustus DeMorgan once wrote, "Whatever can happen will happen if we make trials enough."

By the way, if you’re more of an optimist, you may prefer to subscribe to Yhprum’s Law: Anything that can work, will work.