The Fastest Man on Earth (Part 4 of 4)


The Fastest Man on Earth (Part 4 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 Four of a 4-part series. Parts One, Two, and Three are also available.


Figure 13: MURPHY AND AN EJECTION SEAT. Edward A. Murphy during escape system / ejection seat tests for North American Aviation in 1957. While Murphy labored in relative obscurity, the Law that bears his name became well known throughout the world. While his contribution to the Gee Whiz tests was fairly minor, Murphy’s name will forever remain intertwined with those of Stapp and Nichols. Photo: courtesy of Robert Murphy.

The Voice of Murphy

Despite how badly my interview with Yeager concluded, I feel strangely relieved. I don’t feel nearly so bad that I’ve failed to find a definitive answer about the origins of Murphy’s Law. Yeager’s right: there is no definitive truth. History, as the old saying goes, is nothing more than a pack of lies that everyone agrees are true.
The second thing that transpired was that I unexpectedly received several emails from Robert Murphy. In one he wrote that he wanted to clarify that his father passed away in 1990, not 1989 as he’d written in his letter to the editor. In another he wrote that he’d found a note on Los Angeles West Point Society stationery asking “if they could make a plaque about Murphy’s Law for possible submission to the Academy. In other words,” he continued, “this was not something my father was campaigning for. As I told you, self promotion was completely foreign to my Father…” In the same email Robert cited the comments I made at our meeting and noted that in his view “George Nichols is just an angry old man who regrets that the Law was not named after him, nothing more. He is a self-tainted source.”

And then Robert wrote an email containing some exciting news. He’d been going through some things — I’d asked him to please find a photo of his father — and he’d come across a cassette tape of a radio interview about the Law. He presents it, and a photo of his father working on some rocket sled components, to me at a subsequent meeting.
The cassette tape is unmarked, and there is no spoken introduction whatsoever on the recording. I guess it might be the CBC, or NPR, and probably dates from the time of the People article, early 1980’s. It’s as close as I’m going to get to interviewing Ed Murphy, and of course I can’t wait to hear it.

“Yes, Virginia,” says the nameless commentator broadly, “there really is a Murphy. Ed Murphy, who we’ve got on the phone today...”

Ed Murphy’s voice is serious, deliberate and humorless. Absolutely appropriate, I decide, for a career engineer. Asked to tell his version of the Murphy’s Law story he goes into the kind of excruciating detail you’d expect from someone obsessed with precision. It leaves the interviewer, who apparently believed he was going to interview a slick, witty personality, completely flummoxed.
The senior Murphy said clearly in the interview that, as Nichols and Hill claimed, he wasn’t part of the Gee Whiz team. He’d only been to Edwards once during Stapp’s tests. He was working at Wright Field he recalled, on a project similar to Stapp’s but which involved the use of a centrifuge. He’d designed some innovative electronic measuring equipment for the centrifuge, and when John Stapp heard about that, he called and asked if Murphy’d design some similar components for the Whiz. Murphy’d leapt at the chance, he said, because he admired Stapp and the groundbreaking work he was doing.

According to Murphy, he sent his equipment out to Edwards and it worked well for a few tests. But then something went wrong. Stapp called him to say that he’d “risked his neck riding on that darn sled” and the instruments had produced no data. “So I got on the next airplane to Muroc and had a meeting with him,” Murphy explained. “And I said all right, let’s see the accelerometers.” An examination revealed to Murphy that — like Hill and Nichols said —“they had put the strain gauges on the transducers ninety degrees off.”

Yet contrary to what Nichols said about Murphy not taking the blame for the trouble, Murphy said in the interview that he felt — to a certain degree — it was his fault. “I had made very accurate drawings of the thing for them, and discussed it with the people who were going to make them… but I hadn’t covered everything,” he sighed. “I didn’t tell them that they had positively to orient them in only one direction. So I guess about that time I said, ‘Well, I really have made a terrible mistake here, I didn’t cover every possibility.’ And about that time, Major Stapp says, ‘Well, that’s a good candidate for Murphy’s Law’. I thought he was going to court martial me,” Murphy noted dryly. “But that’s all he said.” When a confused Murphy wound up the courage to ask Stapp what he meant by a Murphy’s Law, Stapp reeled off a host of other Laws, and said smartly that “from now on we’re going to have things done according to Murphy’s Law.”

“And that,” Ed Murphy concluded, “is about the way I think it happened.”

This has been literally a five minute explanation, full of confusing technical information that would puzzle a rocket scientist. And while reciting the facts, Murphy seemingly didn’t bother to state his own Law, and didn’t make a single droll comment. So when the interviewer finally gets a word in edgewise, he doesn’t know what to say except that “There is now a new Murphy’s Law and this is it: you ask Captain Edward Aloysius Murphy a question and by God you get an answer!”
Then the interviewer tries to pin Murphy down. “Now most people,” he says, “think that Murphy’s Law goes like this: if anything can go wrong, it will. Is that right?”

“Well,” Murphy replied, “I wouldn’t say it’s wrong.”

“But how did you say it originally?” the interviewer teased.

“About that way. But I wouldn’t say that’s exactly the words,” Murphy retorted. “I don’t remember. It happened thirty five years ago, you know.”

“Okay,” the interviewer conceded. “But tell me the truth. Are you tired of being asked about it?”

“No,” said Ed Murphy, just before signing off. “I enjoy it. I make a lot of friends that way. Everybody likes to think, that they have discovered a wonderful thing … when they hear Murphy’s Law for the first time.”

Murphy’s Law Applies to Murphy’s Law

It’s true: Murphy’s Law is a wonderful thing and something which, many centuries down the line, will probably still be quoted with regularity. It is a universal truth, a highly reliable precept, and applicable to almost any situation. My own included. Where the story of the origins of the Law is concerned, I couldn’t possibly have hoped to get it right. At least that’s the lesson I’m forced to draw. If Murphy’s Law can be seen in some respects as a statement about entropy, human frailty or fallibility, then the contradictory story of its origins is annoying but also altogether apropos.

Figure 14. THE TRACK TODAY. A contemporary view of the Gee Whiz track at Edwards North Base. On this desolate stretch of desert history was made, and rockets roared and brakes screamed, Now, all is quiet. While much of the track has receded into the desert, a surprising amount of it remains. This photograph shows the brake stand area, which is about two-thirds of the way down the track. Photo by the author.


Indeed, when I think back on the “facts” I’ve managed to gather, all I can do is smirk. Few stand up to scrutiny. Nichols might have written in Bloch’s book that he coined the term “Murphy’s Law”… Yet during our interview he described it as more of a group effort. Murphy claimed in People and in his radio interview that Stapp named the Law, but apparently told Lawrence Peter that Nichols had done it. And while Nichols had claimed that Murphy had tried to usurp the Law, I couldn’t find any direct evidence of that. Just as I couldn’t find any evidence, despite what Kilanowski believed, that Stapp had ever claimed he’d coined it.

In similar fashion, David Hill told me the words Murphy uttered after the failure were “If there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will.” Whereas Nichols claimed it was “If there’s any way he can do it wrong, he will.” Yet when Murphy told the story to Peters, he claimed he’d said, “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will end in disaster, then somebody will do it that way...” He’d told the radio interviewer something entirely different (“I really have made a terrible mistake here, I didn’t cover every possibility”) and when pressed, he said he couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said.

I could go on. While Ed Murphy blamed himself for the mistake, Hill blamed DeMarco and/or Hollobaugh, and Nichols blamed Murphy’s assistant at Wright Field and/or Murphy -- although for different reasons than Murphy did! While Nichols said there were four strain gauges, and that their failure wasn’t a big deal, and that a chimp was involved, Murphy said there were six gauges and that the failure was an extremely costly mistake which occurred while Stapp rode the sled. Similarly, Murphy said he wasn’t there when the transducers initially failed, but Nichols and Hill said he was. Robert Murphy’d once thought the problem lay with “On” and “Off” switches, Kilanowski believed Stapp said Murphy’s line, and Ray Puffer and George Nichols thought Stapp’d examined Yeager’s ribs... You get the point. It all depends whose story you want to believe.

Whatever Can Go Wrong

There are at least — some undeniable facts. No matter who was at fault or who named the expression, the Law was named in honor of Ed Murphy, that’s for sure. And Stapp was the person who popularized it, no question about that. In fact without Stapp’s showmanship at that fateful press conference, without his Promethean effort at contextualizing it and showing the world it was a universal truth, the Law probably would have vanished into the ether.


Figure 15. MURPHY’S RESTING PLACE. Today Edward A. Murphy rests quietly in a veteran’s cemetery. Whether or not it was he who he coined the Law, and whether it was named in his honor or out of spite, the amazingly adaptable Murphy’s Law endures, and its appeal shows no signs of abating. Photo by the author.

It’s a notion I think about when the third thing — remember I said three things happened to me after I met Robert Murphy? — happens. I’m driving down the road at the speed limit, and I idly change lanes. Everything looks all clear, but suddenly my car is hit from behind with terrific force and goes spinning all the way across the street into the curb. Later, reconstructing events, I realize that the other driver, who was speeding, changed lanes to pass me at the exact same time I changed lanes. There was seemingly no way I could have seen him, and he was travelling too fast to stop or avoid hitting me. Of course I can’t shake the thought: whatever can go wrong...

My car is nearly totaled — the rear crumple zone is completely compressed — but because of that and my shoulder harness seatbelt I walk away uninjured. It’s a miracle really. And as I sit on the curb and wait for the police to arrive, I can’t help but think about what Kilanowski told me about John Paul Stapp’s steadfast, tireless efforts in the cause of auto safety. He might not have invented Murphy’s Law, achieved “household word” fame or semantic immortality, but Stapp’s contributions are real and remain with us in the present day.

In that sense, Stapp is the true hero of the Law. He’s a ghost in the machine of every modern airplane and automobile, making sure that when things go wrong — really wrong — they don’t become much worse. So, sitting there on the curb, I say a silent thank-you to the man who risked his own life in an effort to save thousands of others. My own included. John Paul Stapp was a courageous man, a great man I think, and his legacy continues to grow with each passing day.

Nick Spark is a writer and documentary filmmaker. He lives in Los Angeles.

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

© Copyright 2003 Nick T. Spark.
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