The Fastest Man on Earth (Part 2 of 4)
Why Everything You Know About Murphy’s Law is Wrong
This page is Part Two of a 4-part series. Parts One, Three, and Four are also available.
The “Careful Daredevil”
I tried to locate George Nichols, but didn’t have any luck. While continuing the search, and beginning to write an article about the work of Dr. Stapp, I decided to put in a call to Edwards historian Ray Puffer. “You’re writing an article about Stapp and Murphy’s Law?” he sighs. I can literally hear his eyes rolling. As a public affairs officer, Puffer explains patiently, he’s inundated with requests from all over the world to comment about it. It’s a tiring, not to mention distracting, drill. “Just the other day some fellow called me from Oxford,” he says,” He’s putting together a phrase dictionary and wanted me to verify the whole story. Verify it? How do you do that?!”
After some gentle cajoling, Ray agrees to meet so that I can go through the Stapp archive at Edwards. As a bonus, he offers to introduce me to Dr. Dana Kilanowski, a researcher who interviewed Stapp and is writing a book about him. “Who knows?” he says drolly, “Maybe you two’ll get to the bottom of all this.”
The highlight of my visit to Edwards is a trip with Puffer and Kilanowski to see the remains of the Gee Whiz track. Sitting at the edge of the mighty planar lakebed, near where Space Shuttles land and secret aircraft are tested, the track lies forgotten amid the tumbleweeds. A surprising amount of it remains. The entire 2000-foot concrete foundation for the rails pokes out of the sand, and part of the brake stand is still extant. At the end of the track a set of aircraft wheels, once part of the emergency braking system, stand forlornly amid the sagebrush. “Edwards is such a big place,” Dr.Kilanowski muses, “that when they finished with a project they’d just abandon it and move to another site.”
Walking among the ruins, listening to the desert wind howl, it is hard to imagine what kind of man would willingly subject himself to the forces that Stapp endured. According to Kilanowski, the toll he took was staggering and his courage nothing short of monumental. The G-forces produced deep concussions, and the seat harness cracked his ribs and collarbone, and left him bruised and sometimes disoriented. Yet he never complained. “There’s a famous story,” Kilanowski tells me. “Stapp broke his wrist on the sled twice. One time, being a doctor, he set the break himself on his way back to his office.”
Whether Stapp showed fear or not, the tests must have been terrifying. The sled track was like a giant gun barrel, and Stapp was riding the bullet. When I speak several months later to Air Force pilot Joseph Kittinger, who worked with Stapp later in his career on Project Manhigh — where he set a world record by parachuting from a balloon at 102,800 feet — he calls Stapp without hesitation the “bravest man I ever met.” It is a heck of a compliment coming from one of the most fearless men to walk the Earth. “He knew the effects of what he was getting himself into,” Kittinger says by way of explanation. “And he never hesitated.” Another rocket sled pioneer I speak to, Eli Beeding, confides that for him the stress of the tests became so bad that he would often spontaneously throw up before each run. Eventually, he had to quit because of it. Yet Stapp received far worse punishment, Beeding says, and faced scarier side-effects. Yet he never wavered. It is no wonder that around Edwards — a place known for its machismo — the soft-spoken, round-faced M.D. developed a reputation and a nickname: the “Careful Daredevil.”
Some of the injuries Stapp endured, Kilanowski notes, were of a variety seldom seen and more scary as a result. At accelerations above 18 G while travelling backwards (to minimize shock Stapp faced backwards in the initial tests), he began to experience “white outs” — a condition where blood pools in the back of the head, causing momentary loss of vision. In the forward position, Stapp suffered painful “red outs” as the blood surged forward in his eyes and broke vulnerable capillaries. Stapp once compared the sensation to having a tooth extracted. Only it lasted for hours.
“There’s only one reason he did it,” Kilanowski suggests. “His mission in life was to save lives. And he felt that this was one way he could do that.” Both of Stapp’s parents, she notes, were Baptist missionaries, and Stapp spent his childhood with them in far-off Brazil. Later in his life he’d mostly distanced himself from religion, but the missionary zeal remained.
Stapp in and on Seat Belts
And while saving the lives of aviators was important, Kilanowski says Stapp realized from the outset that there were other, perhaps even more important aspects to his research. His experiments proved that human beings, if properly restrained and protected, could survive an incredible impact. Yet the automobiles of the era didn’t have seatbelts, even as optional equipment. Few had any safety design features to speak of. In fact, quite the opposite. Many of them had ornamental, and very solid, steering wheels and dash boards that were utterly unforgiving in a crash, bumpers and frames that didn’t absorb any shock, and doors that tended to pop open in a collision. Without seatbelts, the occupants of a car involved in a crash were thrown around like rag dolls and often ejected. So when things went wrong, they often went very wrong. The carnage on American roads in the 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s was nothing short of hideous.
Improving automobile safety was something no one in the Air Force was interested in, but Stapp gradually made it his personal crusade. Each and every time he was interviewed about the Gee Whiz, Kilanowski notes, he made sure to steer the conversation towards the less glamorous subject of auto safety and the need for seatbelts. Gradually Stapp began to make a difference. He invited auto makers and university researchers to view his experiments, and started a pioneering series of conferences. He even managed to stage, at Air Force expense, the first ever series of auto crash tests using dummies. When the Pentagon protested, Stapp sent them some statistics he’d managed to dig up. They showed that more Air Force pilots died each year in car wrecks than in plane crashes.
While Stapp didn’t invent the three point auto seatbelt, he helped test and perfect it. Along with a host of other auto safety appliances. And while Ralph Nader took the spotlight when Lyndon Johnson signed the 1966 law that made seatbelts mandatory, Stapp was in the room. It was one of his real moments of glory.
“He saved a lot of lives,” says Kilanowski brightly. “In 1940 there were 25 million licensed drivers and 40,000 traffic deaths, and in they year 2000 there were 72 million drivers and 42,000 deaths. And I think that sums up his life. I can’t imagine how many millions of lives that man’s research saved over the years… He was a wonderful human being and a citizen of the world.”
Stapp’s Version, Sort of
But what about Murphy’s Law? Kilanowski says she only spoke to Stapp about the subject in passing. “They had a test run one day,” she tells me, “and Captain Murphy was here from Wright Field. And the cables were set wrong, backwards. And the sled test was run and they couldn’t recover any of the data. And at the time I believe Stapp said something like, ‘If anything can go wrong he’ll do it.’ A couple days later there was a press conference in Los Angeles and Stapp said something like, ‘it was Murphy’s Law — if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.’”
I’m dismayed that Dana’s version of the origin of the Law is so woefully incomplete. But I’m intrigued at the possibility that Stapp had coined the phrase. Does Kilanowski really believe he did? She nods her head affirmatively. “It’s very much like him,” she replies. “Stapp was a man for all seasons. He had a wonderful presence about him, and was always saying wonderful things.” Funny, quotable things. One of her favorites is Stapp’s Ironical Paradox, AKA Stapp’s Law: the universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle. “He always thought that was too wordy and too intellectual for the general public,” she laughs. “But Murphy’s Law was something everyone could relate to and is more catchy.”
I mention that I’ve read that Murphy and/or Nichols came up with the Law. “Well, I have heard that Murphy claimed he invented Murphy’s Law,” Kilanowski says. “But Stapp is the one noted for his witticisms, his haikus, and his plays on words. He published a little book called Stapp’s Almanac and another called For Your Moments of Inertia which have pages of jokes and sayings and wit. And,” she adds, “We’ve never heard anything else from Murphy. So I cannot imagine that Murphy developed it.” Then she throws in a kicker: “Why don’t you ask George Nichols?” He is not only alive, she tells me, but living in nearby Pasadena.
“ Another person you might consider talking to is General Yeager,” says Kilanowski. “He knew Stapp. They were friends.”
“ That’s right,” adds Ray Puffer, who’s been quietly listening in on our conversation. “In fact, I’ve heard that Dr. Stapp checked on Yeager’s ribs, the day before he broke the sound barrier.”
That’s an interesting tidbit. Chuck Yeager is of course the most legendary figure at Edwards, and the biggest legend surrounding him is that he broke the sound barrier with a couple of cracked ribs. Was it really possible that Stapp examined Yeager, and told him he was okay to make that flight? If so, it was a new and exciting revelation, and one that had never made into the history books.
On my way out of Edwards I pick up a copy of Stapp’s For Your Moments
of Inertia at the base bookstore. By the time I get back to Los Angeles,
I’m pretty much convinced by Kilanowski’s argument that Stapp
is the one who refined Murphy’s statement into Law. The book doesn’t
cite the Law, but it is filled with wit. There are poems, limericks, and
one-liners like, “Advice to Actors: Don’t be a ham if you want
to bring home the bacon,” “Better a masochist than never been
kissed,” and “I’m as lonely as a cricket with arthritis.”
Nichols on Stapp
When I call George Nichols and tell him I’d like to speak to him about Stapp and Murphy’s Law, he is both excited and emotional. Stapp was one of his best friends, he explains, and he’s always happy to talk about him. As for the origins of Murphy’s Law, he says it’s a sore spot. He’ll talk about it but only if I agree to really pay attention. “You know, most people,” he says with all seriousness, “have it all wrong.”
From the moment we begin speaking, George Nichols becomes teary-eyed. Stapp’s death in 1999, at the age of 89, was expected but still hit him hard. Nichols couldn’t attend because he was recovering from open heart surgery. “Stapp was a tremendous guy,” Nichols says, and a real humanitarian. Stapp, he recounts, looked after the health of many of the dependents at Edwards who weren’t entitled to Air Force medical care due to ridiculous red tape. He accomplished many things in similar fashion: off the books, against convention and military doctrine. He scrounged equipment for the Gee Whiz site like a corrupt supply sergeant, and defied his bosses at the Aero Med Lab in order to advance his research. For an officer, he had a heck of a rebel streak. He lists example after example, and concludes with this one: “When Chuck Yeager cracked his ribs before the supersonic flight, he went to see Stapp. Because he didn’t believe the flight surgeons on base would permit him to fly.” Stapp signed off on Yeager, Nichols continues, because he didn’t believe the injury would hinder Yeager’s ability to pilot the X-1. “Wow,” I say. “Amazing.”
While we’re on the subject of injuries, Nichols begins speaking about what Stapp endured. The sled tests, he says, were an awful albatross around his friend’s neck. Stapp didn’t feel he would be able live with himself if another person were injured or killed in the course of his research, so he insisted on doing all the groundbreaking tests himself. As a result, he took a tremendous amount of punishment. Nichols repeats many of the incidents Kilanowski related — cracked ribs, broken wrists, concussions, and bloody cysts caused by flying grains of sand -- and adds one more. When the Gee Whiz tests were completed, Stapp rode on a much more sophisticated sled called the Sonic Wind at Holloman, New Mexico. On his twenty-ninth and what turned out to be final sled ride, Stapp reached a speed of 632 miles per hour -- actually faster than a speeding bullet -- and encountered 46.2 G’s of force. In his pursuit of the knowledge of the physiological limits Stapp hadn’t just pushed the envelope, he’d mailed it to the post office.
632 miles per hour broke the land speed record, making Stapp the fastest man on earth. And 46.2 G’s was the most any human being had ever willingly experienced. Prior to the test Nichols had real doubts about whether it was actually survivable. It turned out it was, although Stapp paid a severe penalty. He suffered a complete red out. “His eyes had hemorrhaged and were completely filled with blood,” Nichols remembers, his voice cracking. “It was horrible. Absolutely horrible.” The image of Stapp’s crimson visage haunts Nichols to this day. Yet while initially doctors feared Stapp had been blinded, they quickly confirmed that his retinas were intact. A day later, he could see again more or less normally. He’d have a trace image in his field of vision for the rest of his life.
Bravery was one thing. But the trait that really endeared Stapp to everyone, Nichols goes on, was his wit. At a dismally hot, sandy, brutal place like Edwards, a little laughter went a long way. “He had an extremely unique sense of humor,” says Nichols, citing his puns, limericks and especially, laws. “Now at that time there weren’t a lot of laws being used,” Nichols muses, “Except for the standard ones in physics and science. Stapp started this whole business of laws,” he says emphatically. “Now you’ve got millions of them.”
Stapp’s Ironical Paradox was one. Another was the ‘Sunshine Law,’ which meant that if the sun was shining over Edwards, there must be work to do. The entire team eventually got into the act, coming up with Laws. Nichols’ Law for instance came into being after he witnessed a colleague attempt to jump across a dry concrete canal. The attempt failed. “So my law,” Nichols says proudly, “is: ‘If a proposed action has any unsatisfactory results, forget about it.’
Which leads us to Murphy’s Law. The reason most people get it wrong, Nichols indicates, is that they don’t know how it was originally stated or what it meant. “It’s supposed to be, ‘If it can happen, it will’,” says Nichols, “Not ‘whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.’” The difference is a subtle one, yet the meaning is clear. One is a positive statement, indicating a belief that if one can predict the bad things that might happen, steps can be taken so that they can be avoided. The other version presents a much more somber, some might say fatalistic, view of reality.
Nichols on Murphy’s Law
How did the Law come into being? Nichols relates a story similar to Hill’s, only more detailed. Captain Edward A. Murphy Jr., he says, was a West Point-trained engineer who worked at the Wright Air Development Center. “That’s a totally separate facility from the Aero Med Lab,” he emphasizes. “He had nothing to do with our research.” Nevertheless Murphy one day appeared at the Gee Whiz track. With him the interloper brought the strain gauge transducers -- a transducer is an electronic measuring device Nichols notes -- that Hill described. Only Nichols adds that they were actually of Murphy’s own design.
The strain gauge transducers represented a potential solution to a problem with the Gee Whiz’s G-force instrumentation. Questions had been raised about the accuracy of the accelerometers used on the sled. What Murphy hoped to do was to actually use the test subject, be it a dummy, chimpanzee or human being, to help obtain better data. The subject always wore a restraint system consisting of a heavy harness equipped with two tightening clamps. Murphy proposed placing strain gauge bridges in two positions on each clamp. When the sled came to a stop, the bending stress placed on the clamps would be measured, and from that an accurate measure of G-force could be produced.
Because he planned to return to Wright the very next day, Murphy implored Stapp and Nichols to have his transducers installed immediately. “And I said, well, we really ought to calibrate them,” remembers Nichols. “But Stapp said, ‘No, let’s take a chance. I want to see how they work.’ So I said okay, we’ll put them on. So, we put the straps on and took a chance on what we thought the sensitivity was.” A few hours later a test was run with a chimpanzee, and to Nichols’ surprise the records showed no deflection from the gauges at all. “It was just a steady line like it was at zero,” Nichols comments. Even if they’d been calibrated wrong, the transducers should have registered something. “And we guessed,” Nichols continues, “that there was a problem with the way the strain gauges were wired up.”
An examination revealed that there were two ways the strain gauge bridges could have been assembled. If wired one way -- the correct way -- they would measure bending stress. In the other direction they would still function, but the bending stress reading would be effectively cancelled out. In its place would be a measure of the strap tension, which in the case of determining G load was useless. “David Hill and Ralph DeMarco checked the wiring,” Nichols continues, “and sure enough that’s how they’d wired the bridges up.” Backwards.
Yet unlike David Hill, Nichols insists the error had nothing to do with DeMarco, Hollabaugh or anyone else on the Northrop team. The gauges hadn’t been installed wrong — they’d actually been assembled incorrectly at Wright Field and delivered as defective merchandise. Perhaps Murphy had designed the gauges incorrectly. Or perhaps he’d made his schematic in such a way that it was unclear, causing his assistant to wire them backwards — yet if the assistant had actually done that, then he’d truly had bad luck. On the face of it, the fellow would have had a 50% chance of wiring each gauge correctly. But he’d managed the hat trick, wiring all four wrong. Either way, Nichols figured, Murphy was at fault because he obviously hadn’t tested the gauges prior to flying out to Edwards.
“When Murphy came out in the morning, and we told him what happened,” remembers Nichols, “he was unhappy.” But much to Nichols’ surprise, Murphy almost spontaneously blamed the failure on his assistant at Wright. “If that guy has any way of making a mistake,” Murphy exclaimed with disgust. “He will.”
At the time Murphy’s comment didn’t seem like much of anything except a declaration of frustration and, in Nichols’ view, an expression of extreme hubris. Certainly no one knew a eureka moment — a “Watson, come here!” or “The reaction is self-sustaining” — had just taken place. No one realized that the miswired transducers were like a singular destined apple, falling free of a branch and landing square on Newton’s head, raising a bump and revealing a universal truth.
According to Nichols the failure was only a momentary setback —“the strap information wasn’t that important anyway,” he says — and regardless good data had been collected from other instruments. The Northrop team rewired the gauges, calibrated them, and did another test. This time Murphy’s transducers worked perfectly, producing useable data. And from that point forward, Nichols notes, “we used them straight on” because they were a good addition to the telemetry package. But Murphy wasn’t around to witness his devices’ success. He’d returned to Wright Field and never visited the Gee Whiz track ever again.
Long after he’d departed however, Murphy’s comment hung in the air like a lonely cloud over the ancient dry lake. Part of the reason was, no one was particularly happy with Murphy, least of all Nichols. The more he thought about the incident, the more it bothered him. He became all but convinced that Murphy, and not his assistant, was at fault. Murphy had “committed several cardinal sins” with respect to reliability engineering. He hadn’t verified that the gauges had been assembled correctly, he hadn’t bothered to test them, and he hadn’t given Nichols any time to calibrate them. “If he had done any of those things,” Nichols notes dryly, “He would have avoided the fiasco.”
As it was Murphy’s silly, maybe even slightly asinine comment made the rounds. “He really ticked off some team members by blaming the whole thing on his underling,” Nichols says. “And we got to thinking as a group. You know? We’ve got a Murphy’s Law in that. And then we started talking about what it should be. His statement was too long, and it really didn’t fit into a Law. So we tried many different things and we finally came up with, ‘If it can happen, it will happen.’”
So Murphy’s Law was created, more or less spontaneously, by the entire Northrop test team under the supervision of Nichols. In one sense, it represented a bit of sweet revenge upon Ed Murphy. But George Nichols rapidly recognized it was far more than that. Murphy’s Law was a wonderful pet phrase, an amusing quip that contained a universal truth. It proved a handy touchstone for Nichols’ day to day work as project manager. “If it can happen, it will happen,” he says. “So you’ve got to go through and ask yourself, if this part fails, does this system still work, does it still do the function it is supposed to do? What are the single points of failure? Murphy’s Law established the drive to put redundancy in. And that’s the heart of reliability engineering.”
The Murky Propagation of Murphy’s Law
Like David Hill, Nichols says Stapp is the person who popularized the Law, via a press conference at Edwards. A few weeks later it started showing up in articles and trade publication advertisements. By the mid-1970’s, when Nichols heard that a writer named Arthur Bloch was working on a “Murphy’s Law” book, the phrase was ubiquitous. Yet Nichols had realized that almost no one knew its origin. So he wrote a short letter of explanation, not realizing that it would become the forward to the book and the definitive word on the subject. If he had, he might have amplified his comments.
Nichols had heard a rumor that Murphy was working for Hughes Helicopter in Los Angeles, but didn’t see any reason to contact him prior to the publication of the book. But when it appeared Nichols decided to put in a call to his colleague. “And I asked him if he had seen it,” says Nichols. “And he said no, he’d heard about it. He wasn’t really interested in it.” Nichols was surprised, and his colleague’s brusque response — annoyed was more like it — led him to question something quite basic. Up until that moment, he’d always assumed Ed Murphy knew that he was the Murphy. Now he became convinced that Ed hadn’t a clue about it, and was completely ignorant of his legacy. “He didn’t even know about Murphy’s Law until Bloch published his book,” Nichols says firmly. “And until I told him he was mentioned in it, he didn’t even get a copy.”
It’s a peculiar part of an otherwise straightforward story. But that’s just the beginning. Shortly after he’d contacted Murphy, Nichols explains, things began to go seriously awry. What should have been a nice gesture on his part produced the opposite response. Murphy called and “He just went ballistic,” says Nichols. “And he made this horrible, vitriolic speech in which he said that he thought Stapp and I were taking advantage of him.” Murphy claimed that “what he had said that morning was a paragraph about reliability, about the use of redundancy and so on...” and insisted that he had made up the Law himself. He also asserted that his comment that day had been intended all along as a philosophical statement about reliability and engineering. In short, he was attempting to stake a claim on the broad implications of the Law and its legacy.
A frustrated Nichols listened to Murphy carry on, respectfully disagreed, and tried to let it go at that. But Murphy wasn’t satisfied. According to Nichols, he contacted a few reporters and tried to get his side of the story out in the press. He also set to work writing a short text that presented his version of events. Eventually he sent a copy to Nichols, Stapp and for whatever reason Chuck Yeager to sign. “He wanted to put this on a plaque at West Point,” Nichols recalls bitterly. “And Stapp and I talked about it, and I said this guy is trying to rewrite history. And Stapp said, ‘I don’t like that and I’m not going to support it.’”
At that point, Nichols felt Murphy had crossed a line, but he was still willing to forgive him. But then Murphy’s wife called Nichols and made some desultory statements about him and Stapp. She accused both of them of making money off of the Law, something Nichols says was “absurd.” And she chastised them for not signing the letter for the plaque. Stapp had suffered so many concussions in his lifetime, she implied, that he obviously couldn’t remember what had transpired. A short time later Murphy called and according to Nichols “he tore me apart. Then he tore Stapp apart. And he tried to take credit for (the Law).” That was the last straw. Nichols hung up the phone and never spoke to either Murphy or his wife again. Murphy died in 1989, Nichols notes, and that was the end of that. “It was very very intense,” says Nichols sadly. “And it just ruined a normal friendship. I used to look back on some of this as a good memory…”
I’m relieved when Nichols reaches the end of the story. By now he’s gotten himself pretty worked up, and in the back of my mind I’ve been remembering that he’d had heart bypass surgery. I can just picture it now, the paramedics and their defibrillators, and me trying to explain that this is all a result of Murphy’s Law. Fortunately, Nichols rapidly collects himself, and starts talking about more positive things — for example about how he once used Murphy’s Law as a case study in a Bible class.
In Search of Murphy
Driving home a little while later, I can’t help but think how my opinion of John Paul Stapp has grown mightily while talking to Nichols. Yet at the same time, my vision of Murphy has been completely shattered. The person Nichols described was not a charming, silver tongued Irish rogue with a unique sense of humor and amazing insight, as I had wanted to believe. He was apparently a pompous, jealous toad, someone who might actually have been so dour as to believe that “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”
At the same time, I’m not altogether surprised to hear that Murphy might have gone off the deep end, at least in the immediate aftermath of Bloch’s book being published. To have a bestseller, not to mention that bad action movie and all those calendars, t-shirts, and bumper stickers sold with your name on them — and not to get a dime out of it! -- that would really be irritating.
Anyway, after talking to Nichols I feel I know a lot more about the Law. But I’m also keenly aware I’ve only heard one side of the story. What if Murphy really had come up with the Law, as some people claimed? And what if I trusted what Nichols said, but in reality he was the one modifying the truth? And all because Murphy simply wasn’t around to defend himself. An old saying kept coming to mind: History is told by the winners. There’s a corollary to this that is even more fitting: History is told by the survivors.
I put in a call to West Point to see if they might be able to help me find any of Murphy’s descendents. I don’t make much progress but I do wind up with a copy of a page from the 1939 West Point yearbook. In it is a photograph of a dashing Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr. in full dress, and below that a picture of him tinkering with a gas-powered model airplane. “Our earliest memory of Murph,” the Howitzer notes in a short tribute, “is of a plebe convulsed with laughter at the antics of the Beast Detail.” That certainly seemed closer to what one might imagine about the Murphy — a man with a sense of humor. And, in that context and in hindsight, the next line of the tribute seemed eerily prescient: “Abounding with ideas, (he) sought new solutions for each problem, and he enjoyed nothing so much as an argument on his methods. Murf’s originality amused and amazed us; his friendly grin won a place in our memory.” It was a fascinating description, especially the part about Murphy’s ingenuity and need to debate his methods. But what stayed with me was that last comment about his grin. Like the Chesire cat’s persistent smile…
This page is Part Two of a 4-part series. Parts One, Three, and Four are also available.
© Copyright 2003 Nick T. Spark.
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