Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 10, 2011
Murphy’s Law is not to be confused with Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives, popularized by science fiction author, Larry Niven.
First off, Murphy’s Law expresses a key principle of defensive design where assuming all worst-case scenarios is imperative to the success of the design. The original statement was made by Aerospace Engineer, Major Edward Aloysius Murphy, Jr. (1918 -1990) who served with the United States Army who said, “Every solution breeds new problems.”
Murphy’s Law is often identified as a variation on the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the Law of Entropy – as both identify there is a preferred direction for any process. Murphy’s Law identifies that regardless of the direction taken, each direction brings with it a number of problems, some of which are difficult to identify before they are encountered.
However, Edward Murphy’s take on such things was not much different than George E. Nichols who worked with Murphy on a project to see how much sudden deceleration a person could withstand in a crash. In fact, Nichols’ Fourth Law states, “Avoid any action with an unacceptable outcome.”
At a press conference in 1948, Dr. John Paul Stapp – also associated with the project — was asked by the press if anyone had been severely injured during rocket sled tests. Dr. Stapp announced to the press that the project’s great safety record was due to adhering to Murphy’s Law which, he explained, was a case of considering all the possible things that might go wrong prior to testing and putting safeguards in place to counteract any that actually did come up during testing.
Oddly enough, Dr. Stapp had a law of his own known as Stapp’s Ironical Paradox that states, “The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.”
Murphy’s Law was included for the first time in Webster’s dictionary in 1958.
However, the spirit of Murphy’s Law was in existence long before Edward A. Murphy claimed it as his own. In fact, on January 18, 1842 the Times and Commercial Advertiser newspaper in Montreal, Quebec (Canada) printed the following verse in their column “Short Patent Sermons” by Mr. Dow, Jr:
I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side.