January 30, 2009

"HE KNEW MURPHY"

The Fastest Man on Earth (Overview and Index): Why Everything You Know About Murphy’s Law is Wrong (Nick T. Spark, Annals of Improbable Research)

This all began a few months ago, after I showed an article I’d written for an aviation history magazine to my neighbor. The article concerned some goings on at Edwards, the famed Air Force flight test facility, in the 1950’s. “You know,” my neighbor said, “You’d probably be real interested in talking to my father, David Hill Sr. He worked at Edwards, on a bunch of rocket sled tests in the 1940’s. In fact,” he continued proudly, “he knew Murphy.”

“Murphy?” I inquired, searching my memory for a test pilot of the same name. Yeager, Crossfield, Armstrong… It didn’t ring a bell.

“You know, Murphy,” he went on. “The guy who invented Murphy’s Law.”

I didn’t say it, but I was absolutely skeptical. Who wouldn’t be? One might as well claim to be friends with Kilroy, know the identity of Deepthroat, or the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart. The notion seemed outright laughable. Your father knew Murphy? Sure he did! If Murphy wasn’t some imaginary Irish folk hero, then he was probably a gentle sage who drank a lot of Guinness and lived back in the 1700’s. Needless to say I let the subject slide.

But a day or two later, I almost tripped over a slender book called Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong that had been left on my doorstep. The book cited Murphy’s Law and then listed literally hundreds of amusing corollaries. The extremely brief foreward to the volume included a letter written by an engineer named George Nichols. And this is where things got interesting. Nichols said he’d worked on a series of rocket sled tests at Edwards in the 1940’s with a Colonel John Paul Stapp and that Murphy’s Law emerged from these tests.

“The Law’s namesake,” Nichols wrote, “was Capt. Ed Murphy Jr., a development engineer… Frustrated with a strap transducer which was malfunctioning due to an error in wiring the strain gauge bridges caused him to remark — ‘if there is any way to do it wrong, he will’ — referring to the technician who had wired the bridges. I assigned Murphy’s Law to the statement and the associated variations…”

That appeared straightforward enough, and piqued my interest. I subsequently did some research and I discovered to my surprise that the story of the origin of Murphy’s Law was not something generally agreed upon. Accounts in fact varied wildly. Some sources gave the credit solely to Ed Murphy Jr., a man they praised for his wisdom, insight, and panache, but said almost nothing about. In other places, Nichols’ letter appeared — often word for word — explaining how he had come up with “the statement.” And at least a few writers suggested that Colonel Stapp, also known as “the Fastest Man on Earth,” had invented the Law.

It made my mind race. What were the real facts? Exactly who was Capt. Ed Murphy? What on earth was the point of Stapp’s rocket sled tests? And what the heck is a strap transducer? I decided I had to find out. How hard could it be? I thought. Murphy’s Law might be something of an urban legend -- like the story about the guy who strapped rocket bottles to his car and accidentally launched himself into a mountainside — but thanks to my neighbor I had apparently stumbled upon a real, living, tangible link. [...]

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.” A legend had been hatched. But not yet born.

Just how did the Law get out into the world?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 30, 2009 6:09 AM
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