Improbable Research
The Fastest Man on Earth (Part 3 of 4)


The Fastest Man on Earth (Part 3 of 4)

Why Everything You Know About Murphy’s Law is Wrong

by Nick T. Spark and
Los Angeles, California

This page is Part Three of a 4-part series. Parts One, Two, and Four are also available.


Figure 11. STAPP RIDES THE WIND. The Sonic Wind, with Stapp aboard, hits the water brake on December 10, 1954. When Stapp came out the other side of this splash, George Nichols and the entire Northrop team breathed a huge sigh of relief. And although Stapp longed to do another test -- this time at Mach 1.0 -- cooler heads prevailed. It was fortunate they did. Just a short time later, while performing another test, the Sonic Wind left the track and was nearly destroyed. Photo: courtesy of EAFB History Office.

Catching Up With Murphy

A week later, I make an interesting discovery. In the Los Angeles Times, there is a letter to the editor written a few weeks after John Stapp’s death by a Mr. Robert Murphy. It references Stapp’s obit and says, “Thank you for including a reference to ‘Murphy’s Law’ and correctly attributing it to my father, Edward A. Murphy (1918-1989).”

The letter went on to say that the obit’s description of the origin of the Law -- which pretty much matched Nichols’ -- was incorrect. “It was not Murphy who ‘rigged a harness incorrectly,’” wrote Robert Murphy. “It was a technician on his test team who will forever go nameless. The sensor harness mistake was the classic one of being absolutely wrong. Sensors intended to switch ‘on’ the instant the rocket sled test started were incorrectly connected to switch ‘off’.”

On and off, I wonder? Where did he come up with that? I’m a bit of a loss, and it crosses my mind that this Robert Murphy might be an imposter. But when I get in touch with him by phone, he quickly convinces me he really is the son of Edward. Robert explains that I really have to track down a particular issue of People magazine featuring his father, and a book by Lawrence Peter — the man behind the Peter Principle (“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”) -- called Why Things Go Wrong. These two texts he says, present definitive versions of events from his father’s perspective. When I’ve looked at those, he promises me, he’ll meet me and we can chat.

I track down both texts. In the People article (dedicated to the “unsung sage of the screw-up”) Murphy more or less described what Nichols had, although some of the details varied. He said there were six, not four, strain gauges used on the sled and that Stapp, not a chimpanzee, had been riding the sled at the time of the initial malfunction. He also emphasized that the failure of the gauges was a hugely expensive error, something Nichols had denied. Most significantly, Murphy said that after the error was revealed he’d said “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.” At that moment Murphy claimed a much-inspired John Stapp proclaimed “That... is Murphy’s Law.” I fully expect the Lawrence Peter book to repeat this account, but surprisingly it doesn’t. Instead it gives credit for the Law to “George Nichols... who happened to be present when Murphy uttered these words... and dubbed the remark Murphy’s Law.”

Robert Murphy is a little less enthusiastic about talking to me than I am about talking to him, mainly because the subject of Murphy’s Law -- well it turns out it gets tired after a few decades. It’s not a blessing or a curse, Murphy explains, but inquiries from curious parties like me are not altogether infrequent. Yet at the same time even his closest friends don’t believe him when he explains that he isn’t just the son of a Murphy, but of the Murphy. I have to agree, that is a somewhat strange predicament.

Edward A. Murphy Jr. had been born in the Panama Canal Zone, Robert tells me. From the beginning he’d been groomed to be an Army man like his father, a goal Ed Jr. fulfilled when he was accepted into West Point. By then the clouds of conflict were gathering and shortly after he graduated, Murphy was swept up into the chaos of WWII. He knew how to fly planes, but his real talent lay in engineering. As a result he became a chief maintenance officer. He ended up stationed at various bomber bases on the Burma, India and Chinese front, flew over “the Hump,” and fixed planes from Saigon to Mandalay.

At war’s end Murphy went to Wright Field, where Robert tells me he worked closely with John Stapp. He was an integral part of the test team. “My father would make frequent trips to Muroc,” he says. “And come back and analyze the results.” Later his father was transferred to Norton, and then to Holloman AFB. If he’d stayed in the Air Force at that point, Murphy speculates, his father would have supported Stapp’s work on the Sonic Wind. “We lived right next door to Dr. Stapp at Holloman,” he recalls. “In fact my sister and I used to raise mice and other animals for use in his lab.” But the Murphy family’s time in New Mexico was short lived. Murphy left the Air Force in 1953 for a better job in the civilian world, becoming a human factors engineer for Douglas Aircraft. He then worked for a series of companies before retiring from Hughes Helicopter, where he’d been a reliability engineer. “That was part of the application that he’d done all along,” Robert concludes. “But it’s kind of ironic that Murphy’s Law would come from a reliability engineer.”

Murphy on Murphy’s Law

I ask Robert Murphy to share the story of the origins of the Law, as far as he knows it. What emerges is a slipshod version, and one I sense he isn’t quite comfortable telling. There aren’t “on” and “off” switches this time, but the details are sketchy. One interesting detail revolves around the idea that all the wires in the infamous transducer were identical, such that it was easy to connect them incorrectly. If some of them had been red, or some fatter than others, he says, then it would have been impossible to wire them backwards. “So the design was bad.” When I ask him to expand on this a bit more, he politely declines, and refers me to the account in Lawrence Peter’s book. In a sense I’m relieved when he does. The last thing I want to hear is another, completely different version of these hallowed events.

Figure 12. MURPHY AT WEST POINT. The West Point yearbook, the Howitzer, describes Edward A. Murphy as “abounding with ideas” and notes that “he enjoyed nothing so much as an argument on his methods.” The lower photo shows "Murph" tinkering with -- appropriately enough -- a model aircraft. Photo: courtesy of United States Military Academy, West Point.


“Anyway,” Robert Murphy goes on, “It is a reliability statement. If it can be done wrong, then somebody is going to do it wrong. That’s one interpretation of Murphy’s Law that’s pretty close to what he meant. If you can design something and one way to assemble it or screw it in or whatever is going to make it fail,” Robert sighs, “Then the design is wrong.”

Robert says he is surprised and somewhat offended at the implication that his father mistreated George Nichols. It’s nothing he knows anything about. “I don’t think he ever claimed he’d actually come up with the Law,” he says. “I mean, it’s named after him.” On the other hand, he suggests, Nichols might have his own reasons for raising a fuss -- to try to lay claim to the Law’s immortal legacy. Robert’s never heard of the incident with the West Point plaque either, and dismisses it as a non-event. “The whole idea of my father campaigning for a plaque is completely against character,” he says firmly. “He never pushed the fact that he was the Murphy. In fact, I didn’t realize it for years.” Despite that comment and all that it might imply, Robert doesn’t buy the idea that his father was wholly ignorant of the Law either, as Nichols claimed. “We lived next door to John Stapp at Holloman,” he points out. “And I’m sure if he didn’t know about it by then, Stapp must have mentioned it to him.”

I put the topic aside, since Robert clearly doesn’t know anything about the feud. So we start talking about related topics. Among other things, Bob tells me an amusing story about how he once got a job as a consequence of the Law. He was sent to Japan, where he worked as a technical writer, after an auto company there misprinted several hundred thousand owners’ manuals. They said “five speed shitting transmission” instead of shifting.

Law’s Murphy Meets Principle’s Peter

Before we part, Robert relates one more anecdote. “You know my father became good friends with Lawrence Peter? Right. Well, Peter was going to contact Parkinson. You know, Parkinson’s Law?” Robert says. “‘Work expands to meet the time and money that is available.’” Having the three of them together would have been a heck of an historical moment. Unfortunately the meeting never took place because naturally, something came up.

Chuck Yeager’s Principle of Uncertainty

Three interesting things happen in weeks following my meeting with Robert Murphy. The first is that I get ahold of General Chuck Yeager. I’d sent him a letter way back when, never expecting he’ll actually contact me. When he does and I have him on the phone, I can hear my heart beating. I can’t believe I’m talking to the one, the only, true legend of Edwards, and that I’ll be able to include some of his reminiscences in my article.

Yeager has fond memories of Stapp and actually piloted an aircraft for him during some wind blast tests in the 1950’s. He also remembers inviting the doctor over to his home for dinner. The real motivation, he confesses, wasn’t good conversation. It was so that Stapp could give cursory medical examinations to his young sons, who weren’t permitted to visit the medical facilities at Edwards.

The conversation is flowing along, and the General is full of interesting yarns. But when I ask Yeager whether Stapp ever checked his ribs, prior to the first supersonic flight, he gets upset. “Who told you that?” he says forcefully. “That’s a bunch of crap!” I explain I have it from two different sources, although I’m not entirely certain they’re credible. There is a brief pause on the phone, and then Yeager responds gruffly, “That’s the way rumors get started, by these people…who weren’t even there... Guys become, if you’ll pardon my expression, sexual intellectuals. You know what the phrase is for that?” I have to admit no, I’m not familiar with the term. Sexual what? “Sexual intellectuals. They’re fucking know-it-alls, that’s what.”

I’m almost afraid to ask my next question, which is whether Yeager is familiar with Murphy’s Law, and knows that it came out of Stapp’s work. “Well,” Yeager says in a clipped voice. “I’m familiar with it. But I don’t associate that with Dr. Stapp.” There is another brief silence, and then he cautions me, “Look, what you’re getting into here is like a Pandora’s Box. Goddamn it, that’s the same kind of crap…you get out of guys who were not involved and came in many years after. It’s just like Tom Brokaw’s book if you’ll pardon the analogy here, about the best of the breed or something like that. Well, every guy who wrote his story about World War II did it fifty years after it happened.”

“I’m a victim of the same damn thing,” Yeager says, a bit less vitriolic. “I tell it the way I remember it, and that’s not the way it happened. I go back and I read a report that I did 55 years ago and I say, hmm, I’d better tell that story a little bit different. Well, that’s human nature,” he says reflectively. “You tell it the way you believe it and that’s not necessarily the way that it happened. There’s nothing more true than that.” He laughs and our conversation is at an end.

This page is Part Three of a 4-part series. Parts One, Two, and Four are also available.

© Copyright 2003 Nick T. Spark.
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