Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Episode 132: Murphy's Law Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 132: Murphy’s Law

Record Date: November 6, 2021

Air Date: November 17, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take a group of words and try to tell the story from their entry into the English language, to how they are used today.

Shauna, you know how sometimes it seems like anything that can go wrong, will go wrong? 

I had a week like that recently, where I had delays in my travel, my co-instructor had delays in their travel, there were issues with the hotel, the training room had some problems, it just seemed like one thing after another. And of course, that prompted me to start looking into the origins of both the concept of the phrase, but also the modern name of this concept… Murphy’s Law.


From the Oxford English Dictionary: Murphy’s Law is:


A supposed law of nature, humorously adapted to different contexts, expressing the certainty that in any particular situation anything that can go wrong, will go wrong

End Quote

But first, in a departure from our norm, let’s start our story in the modern day. 2003. The Ig Nobel prizes are about to be announced. The Ig Nobel’s are a set of awards handed out annually to honor achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think. Many see them as a satirical or parody type award, but they are scientific pursuits, even if they make people wonder who would research that?! 

The name of the award is a pun on the word ignoble, meaning not admirable or not noble, and also a pun on the Nobel prizes, named after Alfred Nobel and is an award given to those who have conferred great benefit to humankind. 

So the Ig Nobel prize for Engineering in 2003 was awarded to:


The late John Paul Stapp, the late Edward A. Murphy, Jr., and George Nichols, for jointly giving birth in 1949 to Murphy’s Law, the basic engineering principle that “If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, someone will do it “(or, in other words: “If anything can go wrong, it will”).

End Quote

The reference they use here is Nick T. Spark, in an article from the Annals of Improbable Research, in the September/October 2003 edition. 

The Ig Nobel prizes are organized by the Annals of Improbable Research, so somewhat dubious origins at first. 

Nick Spark, writing the 4 part series for the Annals that led to the Ig Noble being awarded, says


I have become the world’s leading expert on Murphy’s Law. No really, I’m serious. You doubtless have heard the Law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. To some it is a profound statement of philosophy, a reminder that life can be defined just as much by its inherent challenges as anything else. To others however the Law is a pessimistic comment that underscores, albeit in more elegant terms, that shit happens.

Whatever you might think about Murphy’s Law, one thing is certain: it is as ubiquitous an expression as there is in American English. Over the years it has been cited in thousands of articles, websites and news reports, been the subject of several books, appeared as the title of at least one bad Charles Bronson movie and a TV show, and inspired about a dozen zillion corollary Laws. Just about every time something goes wrong somewhere, the Law gets its two cents in. Fortunately my expertise owes very little to actual adversity — I’m not writing this from a hospital bed — and almost everything to research. Historical research. Which is to say I have become the expert on the origins of Murphy’s Law. This happened by accident…and if I’d known what the consequences would be of sticking my nose into it — how I’d draw the wrath of Chuck Yeager, get caught in the middle of a nasty 20-year feud, and nearly wind up in a hospital bed — I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

End Quote 

The story is quite fun and I recommend you give it a read if you are interested. Spark mentions a story, told to him by David Hill, a project participant at the Gee Whiz tests at Edwards Air Force Base. The tests were meant to test G forces. He mentions an incident that happened in the summer of 1949.


At one point an Air Force engineer named Captain Ed Murphy came out to Edwards. With him he brought four sensors, called strain gauges, which were intended to improve the accuracy of G-force measurements. The way Hill tells it one of his assistants, either Ralph DeMarco or Jerry Hollabaugh, installed the gauges on the Gee Whiz’s harness.

Later Stapp made a sled run with the new sensors and they failed to work. It turned out that the gauges had been accidentally installed backwards, producing a zero reading. “If you take these two over here and add them together,” Hill explains matter-of-factly, “You get the correct amount of G-forces. But if you take these two and mount them together, one cancels the other out and you get zero.”

It was a simple enough mistake, but Hill remembers that “Murphy was kind of miffed off. And that gave rise to his observation: ‘If there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will.’” Despite the fact that his people were apparently being blamed for the mistake, Hill shrugged it off. “I kind of chuckled and said, that’s the way it goes,” he sighs. “Nothing more could be done really.”

Murphy’s sour comment proceeded to make the rounds at the sled track. “When something goes wrong,” Hill says, “The message is distributed to everyone in the program.” The way the fat got chewed Murphy’s words —‘if there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will’ — were transformed into a finer, more demonstrative “if anything can go wrong, it will.” 

End Quote

Nick Spark published a full book on his finding in 2006 called, A History of Murphy’s Law. I think Spark’s work gives us a tidy bow on where the “Murphy” of Murphy’s Law may have come from, but…

This was definitely not the first time the concept that is now known as Murphy’s law. 

Fred R. Shapiro, on page 565 of his 2021 work, The New Yale Book of Quotations, offers this as the earliest example of the concept, noting that an article in the Economist, 22 March 1862 included the following:


The lawyer does not see the whole of mercantile life. He sees only the failures… His instinct, therefore, is that business as a rule fails, - that what can go wrong will go wrong.

End Quote 

I also found an example from 1872 in A Budget of Paradoxes Reprinted, with the Author's Additions, from the Athenaeum Augustus De Morgan, edited by Sophia De Morgan. I’ll note the original seems to be from 1866, but I wasn’t able to independently verify that this quote was in the original work and not just part of the reprint. But either way, considerably earlier than summer 1949. 


The first experiment strongly illustrates a truth of the theory, well confirmed by practice: whatever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.

End Quote Page 171

Here’s one from 1878 in Volume 5 of Engineering News, from an article called Review of the Progress of Steam Shipping During the Last Quarter of a Century by Alfred Holt. 


"It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong

sooner or later, so it is not to be wondered that owners prefer the safe to the scientific.

End Quote

It would appear Alfred Holt’s words were re-published here and the meeting at which he delivered those words happened in 1877. 

Coming back to an example from The New Yale Book of Quotations where author Fred Shapiro notes:

Bill Mullins has discovered Murphyesque statements in magicians’ magazine going back to 1908, when British conjuror Nevil Maskelyne wrote in The Magic Circular (June):


It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion, such as the production of a magical effect for the first time in public, everything that can go wrong will go wrong

End Quote

According to the Catholic Times out of Columbus, Ohio, July 7, 1961…


End Quote

So it’s clear that a variety of professions, from lawyers to ad execs, and  mathematics to magicians, have all used the *concept* of Murphy’s Law without *naming* it. And on the naming side, Fred Shapiro in The New Yale Book of Quotations has one more bubble to burst...

This one has two quotes within the quotes, so stick with me…


Genetic Psychology Monographs, May 1951. Earliest documented occurrence of the celebrated “Murphy’s Law”. In popular legend, Murphy’s Law originated in 1949 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, coined by project manager George E. Nichols after hearing Edward A Murphy, Jr., complain about a wrongly wired rocket sled experiment. When the editor of this book spoke to Nichols in Sept. 2003, Nichols stated that the original formulation was “If it can happen, it will happen”. According to Nichols, this law was used at a 5 Jan. 1950 news conference. However there is no trace of documentation of the aviation Murphy’s Law until 1955... 

Dan here, skipping forward several lines for brevity

...In Genetic Psychology Monographs, May 1951, Anne Roe published an interview in which she stated, “As for himself he realized that this was the inexorable working of the second law of the thermodynamics which stated Murphy’s law ‘if anything can go wrong it will.” Stephen Goranson has tracked down, in Roe’s papers, identification of the physicist as Howard Percy Roberson and, in Roberson’s papers, evidence that the interview occurred in the first three months of 1949. Since the Edwards AFB incident is supposed to have happened in June or later of 1949, it appears that such an incident cannot be the explanation of the christening of Murphy’s Law. 

End Quote

Well… now we are just as confused about the origins as we were when we started! 

For what it’s worth, John Glenn wrote in the 1962 work Into Orbit (which was written by the 7 astronauts of Project Mercury…


We blamed human errors like this on what aviation engineers call ‘Murphy's Law’. ‘Murphy’ was a fictitious character who appeared in a series of educational cartoons put out by the U.S. Navy... Murphy was a careless, all-thumbs mechanic who was prone to make such mistakes as installing a propeller backwards.

End Quote

John Glenn was a former US military test pilot turned astronaut and later U.S. Senator from Ohio. He was the third American in Space and the first American to orbit the Earth. 

Glenn seemed to attribute Murphy to a caricature. Glenn served from 1942 to 1965 and doesn’t mention when these educational cartoons came out. I couldn’t find anything with a character called Murphy pre-1962, but I did find a Private Snafu and a Private Joe Dope. So if any of you can point me in the direction of a cartoon Murphy the Navy would have used in educational stuff between WWII and 1962, I’d love to hear about it!

Suffice it to say, for now, that Murphy’s law is an old concept, but how it came to be named for a Murphy is still an open source for debate. 

For now, let’s turn our attention to some modern examples of the phrase, but first, we have a few sponsors to thank!

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

We’ll start with the 1978 release of Murphy’s Law and other reasons things go wrong! by Arthur Bloch. On the cover, the entire word “wrong” is upside down. In the shortest synopsis yet, the author describes it as:


Pertinent words of wisdom called from the perverse, but humorous, intricacies of life in the twentieth century

End Quote 

This book gave rise to many others in the series, including Murphy’s Law for Lawyers, for Doctors, For 2000 which focused on what else can go wrong in the 21st century, and more. 

We also have a 1986 movie, which we alluded to earlier, called Murphy’s Law. It stars Charles Bronson and comes with the tagline: 

He’s a Cop...She’s a thief... Together, they’re running for their lives

The synopsis from IMDb,com is only slightly more helpful


An action-packed thriller starring Charles Bronson as Jack Murphy, a cop who is running to stay alive long enough to even the score with his wife's killer.

End Quote

I watched the trailer. Oof. It scored a 45% from the audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, which is frankly higher than I would have expected. 

Next up is Murphy’s Law, the first book in the Molly Murphy Mysteries series. Released in 2002, author Rhys Bowen takes us on a captivating journey. 

Here’s the synopsis from the books’s Amazon page…


Molly Murphy always knew she'd end up in trouble, just as her mother predicted. So, when she commits murder in self-defense, she flees her cherished Ireland, and her identity, for the anonymous shores of America. When she arrives in New York and sees the welcoming promise of freedom in the Statue of Liberty, Molly begins to breathe easier. But when a man is murdered on Ellis Island, a man Molly was seen arguing with, she becomes a prime suspect in the crime.

Using her Irish charm and sharp wit, Molly escapes Ellis Island and sets out to find the wily killer on her own. Pounding the notorious streets of Hell's Kitchen and the Lower East Side, Molly makes it her desperate mission to clear her name before her deadly past comes back to haunt her new future.

End Quote 

Murphy’s Law - TV Show from 2003 - 2007 where a maverick Irish cop takes on the London crime world.

The synopsis from IMDb: 


As a maverick cop with a dark past, Tommy Murphy fails a psychiatric assessment but is given one last chance by his boss and given a dangerous undercover assignment.

End Quote 

Jumping forward in time a bit to 2015, we’ve got a 20 minute comedy short titled Murphy’s Law. IMDb says:


Police officer Tim Murphy is the best negotiator the department has to offer, until his overconfidence gets the best of him. After screwing up one to many times, Murphy must fight for his job, his love, and his father's legacy in this dark, 80s-style cop comedy.

End Quote

We have the 2020 single Murphy’s Law by Róisín Murphy

The lyrics go:


It's Murphy's law, I'm gonna meet you tonight

Just one match could relight the flame

And just when everything is goin' alright

All my hard work goes down the drain

End Quote

This is a disco song, for sure. And she has a deep, sultry voice. So if that’s your thing, check out the links in the show notes on or just click the official video on our Patreon. 

And finally, I want to mention a tweet I saw from the Shah of Blah, posted November 4, 2021. Mostly because it made me laugh out loud.

Wrap up...

Nick Sparks lays out a pretty compelling case that Edward Murphy, Jr  is the origin of the name. Although Fred Shaprio gives enough evidence to cast doubt on that attribution. And I’m not even sure what to think about John Glenn’s contribution. The concept has been around for ages, but it wasn’t until the 1940s or 50s that we started specifically calling it “Murphy’s Law”. So if it wasn’t Edward Murphy… who was it named after?

I suppose there are just some things in life we won’t be able to know. At least not right now. Which reminds me of something author, podcaster, and generally good person John Green has said a few times, “we don’t know almost everything”. 

And I think John is on to something with recognizing that. 



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Words belong to their users.

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