The widely accepted version of Murphy’s law is that “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. But this isn’t what Captain Murphy said or meant following the calamitous experiment that nearly killed his co-researcher.
Edward A. Murphy, a Captain in the US Air Force, was a serious and focussed research who in 1949 conducted a series of experiments on human subjects investigating the amount of G-force a human could withstand without being condensed into a mushy pulp. The extremely dangerous experiment was conducted with a rocket sled that would accelerate on a track to speeds approaching the sound barrier before stopping, very abruptly, generating around 40Gs of force on the sled, and its unfortunate incumbent.
Dr Stapp, one of the research team and an Air Force Captain himself, was the unfortunate first test subject, whilst I call him unfortunate he somehow survived this ordeal. He was accelerated to over 600mph and stopped, very abruptly. Staggering from the now stationary vehicle, Dr Stapp, pulverised and bloody, but alive, staggered to Murphy to discover that every one of the dozens of sensors recorded zero Gs. Every single one of the sensors that had been meticulously designed, built and tested, had been very carefully installed the wrong way round by a hapless assistant. On discovering this an exasperated Murphy declared "if there's more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in a catastrophe, then he will do it that way”.
This was promptly paraphrased amongst the team of scientists to "if that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will” and further usage honed the saying to "if it can happen, it will happen” and it was this saying that the team conducting these perilous investigations learned to work by. The saying was intended as a motivational tool for making sure future runs of the extremely dangerous experiment where thoroughly tested for any possible ares for failure, before any poor soul was put through it again.
At the first press conference following the tests, the question was raised about how nobody had been severely hurt during these perilous trials. Dr Stapp responded that it was due to the teams application of Murphy’s Law, to consider all the possible things that could go wrong before an experiment and to take steps to make sure they didn’t happen. The quick witted Dr Stapp then came up with the immortally catchy and media friendly phrase “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”.
So this damning declaration made by so many frustrated pessimists was clearly originally intended to be a positive attitude towards minimising the likelihood of mistakes or errors occurring during life or death experiments. So catchy was the phrase however, that the media ran with it and it quickly became used for all manner of frivolous domestic situations, much to the annoyance of Murphy who’s serious nature and intent on safety was being diminished by the frivolity of his name’s use. The beautiful irony then is that in losing control of his own poignant and serious turn of phrase, the first casualty of Murphy’s Law was Murphy himself.
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