"The Science of Murphy's Law"
Edward A. Murphy was born in Panama in 1918, and graduated from the US Military
Academy at West Point in 1940. After serving as a pilot in the Pacific Theater
during the Second World War, he became Research and Development Officer at
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio.
by Robert A.J. Matthews
in Killers in the Brain: Essays in Science and
Technology from the Royal Institution, 1999
edited by Peter Day
It was in this capacity that Murphy took part in Air Force Project MX981:
Human Deceleration Tests, performed during the late 1940s. These
involved propelling humans at high speeds by rocket sled along a track, rapidly
decelerating them, and monitoring the effects. In 1949, Murphy was involved
in the operation of a harness equipped with strain gauges designed to measure
the forces acting on the volunteers during each run. After he had delivered
some load pick-ups to monitor the stresses to the team, a run was carried out.
It appeared successful, yet examination of the telemetry recorder revealed that
the harness had somehow failed to work properly. Taking the contraption apart,
it emerged that all the crucial wiring had been carried out incorrectly. When
Murphy learned of the foul-up, he observed that if there was a way for one of
the technicians to make a mistake, that would be the way things would be done.
This rueful observation was the germ of what eventually became known as
Murphy's law (Nichols, G., private communication).
At a subsequent press conference, one member of the project team said that
they had become firm believers in Murphy's law, that "If it can happen, it
will happen". This throwaway remark was seized upon by the press as a pithy
encapsulation of the all-too-familiar cussedness of inanimate objects, and
the Law soon took on its classic wording: "If something can go wrong, it will".
Murphy himself came to loathe this "frivolous" interpretation of the law.
Following his involvement in the deceleration research, he went on to have
a distinguished career that focused on the design of pilot escape systems
for high-profile projects such as the X-15 hypersonic rocket plane and the
SR-71 "Blackbird" reconnaissance aircraft, and on life support systems for
the Apollo missions. In these roles, Murphy came to view the law as an
excellent philosophy for safety-critical engineering design: one should
always work on the assumption that if something can go wrong, it will. By
the time of his death in 1990, the concept of "defensive" design, in which
one tries to foresee and counter the action of human blunders, was widely
used in safety-critical applications. Yet Murphy's name seems destined to
remain forever associated primarily with the "urban myth" of the general
perversity of the world around us. By failing to have his name associated
with his own eminently sensible interpretation of Murphy's law, Murphy
himself thus became a victim of his own law.