Murphy's Law Really Works, and Nobody Knows It Better Than Murphy, the Unsung Sage of the Screw-Up

updated 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

One day back in 1949, during the wild, wacky "Right Stuff" days when the Air Force was testing its weird new rocketry, Maj. John Paul Stapp was blasted out across California's Mojave Desert in a rocket sled. Stapp was a guinea pig in a test at Edwards Air Force Base to see just how much pressure the human body could withstand before it turned into Jell-O. He had already handled 31 G's—31 times the force of gravity—but on this fateful day Stapp shot beyond that into the outer limits of human endurance as the pressure slammed him back into his seat and tried to peel his face off. After that hairy ride, he stepped from the sled with just one question: "What was the G reading?" There was none. Something had gone wrong. "Zero, sir," a technician said sheepishly.

Stapp, who had just risked his hide for nothing, called on troubleshooter Capt. Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr. to find out what had gone wrong. Murphy discovered that somebody had installed each of 6 G-measuring devices backward. "If there's more than one way to do a job and one of those ways will end in disaster," Murphy remarked, "then somebody will do it that way." "That," replied Stapp, "is Murphy's Law."

And so it was. Like Sir Isaac Newton's epiphany on the falling apple, Murphy turned an everyday occurrence into a timeless truth. He did, one might argue, what all the heavyweight thinkers of Western Civ. 101—Darwin, Marx, Freud, et al.—had failed to do: He'd explained the mass mess of modern life in one pithy profundity. People have won the Nobel Prize for less memorable achievements. But Ed Murphy, who is now 65, got no prizes, no honorary degrees, not even fame and fortune. While Murphy's Law entered American folklore in the form of books, calendars and posters that earned him not a nickel, Murphy wallowed in obscurity in a suburb of Los Angeles. Perhaps worst of all, the law itself got garbled along the way. All of which simply goes to prove the absolute accuracy of Murphy's thesis.

Ironically, it was Stapp, Murphy's first disciple, who originally publicized—and perverted—the law. At an Air Force press conference a few weeks after Murphy spoke his historic piece, Stapp casually mentioned Murphy's Law, and a reporter asked him to define it. "If something can go wrong, it will," Stapp replied. That definition soon began to appear in aviation magazines. Murphy, however, regards Stapp's version as too pessimistic. "My original statement was to warn people to be sure that they cover all the bases, because if you haven't, you're in trouble," he says. "It was never meant to be fatalistic."

Misquote or not, Murphy's Law took on a life of its own, spreading from obscure aviation journals into the American lexicon. Dr. Laurence Peter, coauthor of The Peter Principle ("People rise to the level of their own incompetence"), feels that Murphy's Law has lived on because it is true. "My law was a product of a 25-year study I did on teacher competence, and Murphy's came from the rocket tests," he says. "Both sprang from reality, and that's why they tend to last."

But Murphy's Law has not merely lasted, it has thrived. In 1977 Arthur Bloch, a California writer, published a book called Murphy's Law, which quickly became a smash best-seller. Bloch followed it up with two more Murphy books and three Murphy calendars. Total book sales: more than two million copies. Ed Murphy has watched this phenomenon with chagrin. He has no plans to sue, but he is miffed. "Arthur Bloch never made any attempt to find out if Murphy lives," he complains. "I really think he should have tried to find out about me." Responds Bloch: "No, I didn't try to track him down. It never occurred to me that I had infringed on Ed Murphy. I felt that his law was in the public domain."

Had Bloch looked, he would have found the chubby, white-haired sage alive and well and living in Manhattan Beach, Calif. with his wife, Effie, and his Chihuahua dog, Bowser. Murphy, who left the Air Force in 1953, works as a reliability engineer for Hughes Helicopters, Inc. It is a very Murphyesque occupation: He tests parts and tries to make sure that nothing goes wrong with Hughes' multimillion-dollar helicopters. "Guys who design parts never want to admit that they can break," he says. "But if you use or abuse something long enough, it will fail." And that, of course, is just another corollary to Murphy's Law.

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