One of the most common expressions in English was born of anger, so it's probably safe to assume that, given the context – a bunch of military guys in the desert – Murphy's Law originally included one or two expletives.
Sixty years later, the profanity-free adage – "If anything can go wrong, it will" – shows no sign of becoming irrelevant with age.
Which isn't at all surprising. Murphy's Law, which originated in 1949, remains a pithy description of the way things often are, or the way we fear they'll be. Human error, freak circumstances: Our "best laid schemes," as Robert Burns wrote in "To a Mouse," often go awry.
Of course, the universe sometimes smiles on us and things turn out the way we hope they will. But as The Guardian's Jon Henley wrote recently in a nimble bit of contortionist logic, that could be considered yet more proof of Murphy's Law: "If ML can go wrong, then things can sometimes go right. We know from experience that things do sometimes go right. Ergo, ML can go wrong. Ergo, ML is correct and self-proving."
Got that? If not, no worries – just another instance of Murphy's Law.
But back to that pivotal day in the desert: There are different versions of what actually happened and who said what to whom.
What is clear, though, is that the law is inextricably linked with an American aerospace engineer and former World War II pilot named Edward Aloysius Murphy, Jr. and project MX981.
In a detailed 2003 account of the genesis of the law in the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, Nick T. Spark – who went on to write the book A History of Murphy's Law – describes how the U.S. Air Force was conducting tests into human tolerance of G-force. A person experiences one unit of G (or gravity) force on Earth at sea level, and a whole lot more in a crash landing.
At Muroc Field, located in California's Mojave Desert – and subsequently renamed Edwards Air Force Base – a research crew in the late 1940s used a rocket-powered sled mounted on tracks to study the effects of rapid deceleration.
The sled, nicknamed Gee Whiz, would travel for about three-quarters of a kilometre at more than 320 km/h before hydraulic brakes brought it to a sudden halt. At first the tests were conducted with a dummy, but eventually physician John Paul Stapp, then a captain in the Air Force, took its place.
Murphy, then based at the Wright Air Development Center at Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, was called in to help make the G-force measurements more accurate.
But the sensors he had developed, called "strain gauges," didn't work during a trial with a chimpanzee. It turned out they had been installed backwards, though one or two dissenters contend Murphy's sensors were faulty to begin with.
There's more contention over how the famous saying came about. Murphy himself gave somewhat contradictory versions. In subsequent interviews, he maintained he was the one who made the comment that eventually got edited down to "If anything can go wrong, it will," or variations thereof.
But it's unclear precisely which words he uttered. According to author Spark, Murphy once told People magazine he'd put the blame for the faulty sensors on others, saying, "If there's more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way."
But in a radio interview some time later, Murphy recalled blaming himself for the sensors' failure, saying, "Well, I really have made a terrible mistake here; I didn't cover every possibility."
Other versions of the story have the adage originating with the whole group involved in the testing. And on the U.S. Air Force's official website, Stapp is credited with having uttered the immortal words.
There is consensus over how the law spread: A few weeks after the incident, Stapp used the term "Murphy's law" to explain that the team avoided injuries by anticipating all sorts of possibilities.
Murphy's Law has inspired several books, and helped lead to the concept of defensive design. Stripped of its meaning, the term has provided the title for a couple of movies, including a Charles Bronson actioner and more than one TV series, and has also been emblazoned above many pub doorways and on legal firm stationery.
The law itself has spawned countless variations. Toast always falls buttered side down. You have your best golf shot when you play alone. Traffic moves faster in another lane.
All this from a snafu in the desert.
Commentary in the Toronto Star by the Ottawa Mens Centre