The Fastest Man on Earth (Part 1 of 4)


The Fastest Man on Earth (Part 1 of 4)

Why Everything You Know About Murphy’s Law is Wrong

by Nick T. Spark
[email protected] and
Los Angeles, California

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


Figure 1. KEY PERSONNEL. The key participants in the Gee Whiz tests at Edwards Air Force Base, which gave birth to Murphy’s Law. John Paul Stapp stands in the second row, center, wearing dark clothing. George Nichols is immediately to the right of Stapp. David Hill is in the front row on the left. (Note: Ed Murphy does not appear in this or any other known photo at Edwards, because he was there for only a couple of days. Photo: courtesy of Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB) History Office.

The Road to Murphy’s Law

This all began a few months ago, after I showed an article I’d written for an aviation history magazine to my neighbor. The article concerned some goings on at Edwards, the famed Air Force flight test facility, in the 1950’s. “You know,” my neighbor said, “You’d probably be real interested in talking to my father, David Hill Sr. He worked at Edwards, on a bunch of rocket sled tests in the 1940’s. In fact,” he continued proudly, “he knew Murphy.”

“Murphy?” I inquired, searching my memory for a test pilot of the same name. Yeager, Crossfield, Armstrong… It didn’t ring a bell.

“You know, Murphy,” he went on. “The guy who invented Murphy’s Law.”

I didn’t say it, but I was absolutely skeptical. Who wouldn’t be? One might as well claim to be friends with Kilroy, know the identity of Deepthroat, or the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart. The notion seemed outright laughable. Your father knew Murphy? Sure he did! If Murphy wasn’t some imaginary Irish folk hero, then he was probably a gentle sage who drank a lot of Guinness and lived back in the 1700’s. Needless to say I let the subject slide.

Figure 2. THE FACE OF STAPP. These are the photographic frames that made John Paul Stapp famous. Printed in physics textbooks and shown in driver’s education classes for a generation, they vividly illustrate the concept of G forces -- and also the courage of the Gee Whiz’s lone human rider. Ironically, while Stapp and his work had a tremendous, if largely unappreciated, impact on the life of every American, it was Murphy and the Law that became household names. Photos courtesy of EAFB History Office.


But a day or two later, I almost tripped over a slender book called Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong that had been left on my doorstep. The book cited Murphy’s Law and then listed literally hundreds of amusing corollaries. The extremely brief foreward to the volume included a letter written by an engineer named George Nichols. And this is where things got interesting. Nichols said he’d worked on a series of rocket sled tests at Edwards in the 1940’s with a Colonel John Paul Stapp and that Murphy’s Law emerged from these tests.

“The Law’s namesake,” Nichols wrote, “was Capt. Ed Murphy Jr., a development engineer… Frustrated with a strap transducer which was malfunctioning due to an error in wiring the strain gauge bridges caused him to remark — ‘if there is any way to do it wrong, he will’ — referring to the technician who had wired the bridges. I assigned Murphy’s Law to the statement and the associated variations…”

That appeared straightforward enough, and piqued my interest. I subsequently did some research and I discovered to my surprise that the story of the origin of Murphy’s Law was not something generally agreed upon. Accounts in fact varied wildly. Some sources gave the credit solely to Ed Murphy Jr., a man they praised for his wisdom, insight, and panache, but said almost nothing about. In other places, Nichols’ letter appeared — often word for word — explaining how he had come up with “the statement.” And at least a few writers suggested that Colonel Stapp, also known as “the Fastest Man on Earth,” had invented the Law.

It made my mind race. What were the real facts? Exactly who was Capt. Ed Murphy? What on earth was the point of Stapp’s rocket sled tests? And what the heck is a strap transducer? I decided I had to find out. How hard could it be? I thought. Murphy’s Law might be something of an urban legend -- like the story about the guy who strapped rocket bottles to his car and accidentally launched himself into a mountainside — but thanks to my neighbor I had apparently stumbled upon a real, living, tangible link.


The Rocket Sled


Figure 3. DAVID HILL. David Hill Sr., a project participant, photographed here in July 2002. Photo by the author.

When I walked into David Hill’s house, I immediately spotted ten or so photographs from the sled tests arranged on his dining room table. The sled itself is a primitive looking steel and aluminum car armed with four massive rocket bottles — yes, the same type that allegedly hurtled that crazy fool into that mountain — and in the photo it is shooting down a railroad track like a hoot owl out of Hell. Behind it trailed a twenty-foot long dagger of fire. “That’s Captain Stapp,” David Hill says, pointing to a fuzzy figure strapped to the sled. He points him out again, this time in a group photo. Stapp is a bespeckled, smiling, somewhat pudgy man who doesn’t remotely resemble the lean, tough astronaut or test pilot I’d expected. “And here’s George Nichols,” Hill continues, pointing to a dapper, white shirted fellow standing nearby. To his right, a very young David Hill squints in the bright sun. Is Murphy in the photo, I ask? “No,” Hill answers. “I don’t have any pictures of Murphy. He was only there with us a couple of days.”

Although a bit set back by Parkinson’s, 83-year-old Hill still has the rock solid mind of an engineer, and recalls events with startling clarity. In 1947, he’d accepted a job at Northrop Aircraft and been dispatched to Muroc (later renamed Edwards) to work on Project MX981. These tests were run by Capt. Stapp who, Hill says, wasn’t just an Air Force officer. He was a medical doctor, a top-notch researcher, and a bit of a Renaissance man.

The goal of MX981 was to study “human deceleration.” Simply put, the Air Force wanted to find out how many G’s — a ‘G’ is the force of gravity acting on a body at sea level — a pilot could withstand in a crash. For many years, Hill says, it had been an established fact that the limit was 18 Gs. Every military aircraft design was predicated on that statistic, yet certain incidents during WWII suggested it might be wrong. If it was, then pilots were needlessly being put at risk.

Figure 4. OSCAR EIGHTBALL. Oscar Eightball is tucked in for a ride on the Gee Whiz. The dummies used in the tests were primitive, but proved invaluable in terms of “getting the bugs out” of the test sled. Later in his career, Stapp would help define specifications for test dummies, and supervise their apparently first-ever use in automobile crash tests. Photo: courtesy of David Hill Sr. Collection.


To obtain the required data, the Aero Medical Lab at Wright Field contracted with Northrop to build a decelerator. “It was a track, just standard railroad rail set in concrete, about a half-mile long,” says David Hill, pointing to another photo. “It had been built originally to test launch German V-1 rockets during WWII.” At one end of the track engineers installed a 50-foot long series of hydraulic brakes that looked like dinosaur teeth. The sled, nicknamed the “Gee Whiz,” would hurtle down the track and hit them at near maximum velocity, upwards of 200 mph. Exerting millions of pounds of force, the brakes would bring the sled to a stop in less than a second. In that heart-stopping moment, the physical forces at work would be equivalent to those encountered in a plane crash.

While the brass assigned a 185-pound, absolutely fearless, incredibly tough, and altogether brainless anthropomorphic dummy — known as Oscar Eightball — to ride the Gee Whiz, David Hill remembers Stapp had other ideas. On his first day on site he announced that he intended to ride the sled so that he could experience the effects of deceleration first-hand. It was a statement that Hill and everyone else found shocking. “We had a lot of experts come out and look at our situation,” he remembers. “And there was a person from M.I.T. who said, if anyone gets 18 Gs, they will break every bone in their body. That was kind of scary.”
But the young doctor had his own theories about the tests and how they ought to be run, and his nearest direct superiors were over 1000 miles away. Stapp’d done his own calculations, using a slide rule and his knowledge of physics and human anatomy, and concluded that the 18 G limit was sheer nonsense. The true figure he felt might be twice that if not more. That might sound like heresy, but just a few months earlier someone else had proved all the experts wrong. Chuck Yeager, flying in the Bell X-1 rocket plane, broke the sound barrier in the same sky that sheltered the Gee Whiz track. Not only did he not turn to tapioca pudding or lose his ability to speak, as some had predicted, but he’d done it with nary a hitch. “The real barrier wasn’t in the sky,” Yeager would later write. “But in our knowledge and experience.”


Exit Oscar Eightball, Enter John Paul Stapp

But if Stapp was a maverick, he was also a scientist and a methodical one at that. For several months Oscar Eightball rode the sled, and in the process several design flaws were detected and corrected. On Oscar’s first trip, the primary and emergency brakes failed and the Gee Whiz shot off into the desert. On another test Oscar got loose at 200 mph and sailed 700 feet downrange, leaving his rubber face behind on the Whiz’s metal windscreen. Clearly, some damnable forces were at work.


Figure 5. OSCAR AIRBORNE. Traveling at high velocity, Oscar Eightball shoots off the Gee Whiz — and right through a wooden windscreen -- on his way towards the Muroc dry lake. This “accident” was actually done intentionally to demonstrate the considerable physical forces at work on the sled track. Photo: courtesy of David Hill Collection.

Finally in December 1947 after 35 test runs, Stapp got strapped into the steel chariot and took a ride. Only one rocket bottle was fired, producing a mere 10 Gs of force. Stapp called the experience “exhilarating.” Slowly, patiently he increased the number of bottles and the stopping power of the brakes. The danger level grew with each passing test but Stapp was resolute, Hill says, even after suffering some bad injuries. And within a few months, Stapp had not only subjected himself to 18 Gs, but to nearly 35. That was a stunning figure, one that would forever change the design of airplanes and pilot restraints.

As fate would have it, David Hill was in charge of the telemetry gear that collected all of the test data. That proved to be challenging work, especially since most of the equipment was custom made or experimental. Almost all of it relied on balky vacuum tubes, which had a tendency to fail without warning, and radio and electronics technologies that were still in their infancy.


The Famous Incident

Which brings up, David Hill says at last, the famous incident. At one point an Air Force engineer named Captain Ed Murphy came out to Edwards. With him he brought four sensors, called strain gauges, which were intended to improve the accuracy of G-force measurements. The way Hill tells it one of his assistants, either Ralph DeMarco or Jerry Hollabaugh, installed the gauges on the Gee Whiz’s harness.

Later Stapp made a sled run with the new sensors and they failed to work. It turned out that the gauges had been accidentally installed backwards, producing a zero reading. “If you take these two over here and add them together,” Hill explains matter-of-factly, “You get the correct amount of G-forces. But if you take these two and mount them together, one cancels the other out and you get zero.”

It was a simple enough mistake, but Hill remembers that “Murphy was kind of miffed off. And that gave rise to his observation: ‘If there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will.’” Despite the fact that his people were apparently being blamed for the mistake, Hill shrugged it off. “I kind of chuckled and said, that’s the way it goes,” he sighs. “Nothing more could be done really.”

Murphy’s sour comment proceeded to make the rounds at the sled track. “When something goes wrong,” Hill says, “The message is distributed to everyone in the program.” The way the fat got chewed Murphy’s words —‘if there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will’ — were transformed into a finer, more demonstrative “if anything can go wrong, it will.” A legend had been hatched. But not yet born.

Just how did the Law get out into the world? Well, David Hill says, John Paul Stapp held his first-ever press conference at Edwards a few weeks after the incident. And he was attempting to explain his research in clinical terms when a reporter asked the obvious question: “How is it that no one has been severely injured — or worse — during your tests?” Stapp, who Hill says could be something of a showman, replied nonchalantly that, “we do all of our work in consideration of Murphy’s Law.” When the puzzled reporters asked for a clarification Stapp defined the Law and stated, as Hill puts it, “the idea that you had to think through all possibilities before doing a test” so as to avoid disaster.

According to Hill, that was a defining moment. Whether Stapp realized it or not, Murphy’s Law neatly summed up the point of his experiments. They were, after all, dedicated to trying to find ways to prevent bad things — aircraft accidents — from becoming worse. As in fatal. But there was a more significant meaning that went to the very core of the mission of the engineer. From day one of the tests there had been an unacknowledged but standard experimental protocol. The test team constantly challenged each other to think up “what ifs” and to recognize the potential causes of disaster. If you could predict all the possible things that could go wrong, the thinking went, you could also find a way to prevent catastrophe. And save John Stapp’s neck.

If anything can go wrong, it will. It was a concept that seized the cumulative imagination at the press conference. So when articles about the Gee Whiz showed up in print, Murphy’s Law was often cited right along with Newton’s Second.

“I didn’t think here’s some profound statement that been made that will shock the world,” says Hill, expressing amazement that the remark gained such prominence. “It wasn’t made as such. Of course it’s true that if there’s a right way to do something, there’s generally a wrong way to do it also. And it’s good to recognize the difference.”

To my disappointment, Hill couldn’t remember much more than that. He didn’t really know Ed Murphy, he confessed. Regardless he was sure that Murphy had passed away, as had Stapp, DeMarco, and Hollobaugh. “If anyone will know who coined the Law it’ll be George Nichols,” he concluded. “If he’s still alive, then he’s the last one besides me who was there when it happened.”

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

© Copyright 2003 Nick T. Spark.
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