Which Murphy?

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Wikipedia defines Murphy's Law as an adage or epigram that is typically stated as: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong", and documents an origin story crediting Edward R. Murphy, whose article explains that

Following the end of hostilities, in 1947 Murphy attended the United States Air Force Institute of Technology, becoming R&D Officer at the Wright Air Development Center of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It was while here that he became involved in the high-speed rocket sled experiments (USAF project MX981, 1949) which led to the coining of Murphy's law.

But in the same box of papers containing Sally Thomason's artwork from 2001 ("Interfaces and Interactions", 7/7/2021), I found a copy of a paper by William R. Bennett Jr., under the title "Sigsaly", which gives a different origin story.

According to Wikipedia,

SIGSALY (also known as the X System, Project X, Ciphony I, and the Green Hornet) was a secure speech system used in World War II for the highest-level Allied communications. It pioneered a number of digital communications concepts, including the first transmission of speech using pulse-code modulation. […]

Although telephone scramblers were used by both sides in World War II, they were known not to be very secure in general, and both sides often cracked the scrambled conversations of the other. Inspection of the audio spectrum using a spectrum analyzer often provided significant clues to the scrambling technique. The insecurity of most telephone scrambler schemes led to the development of a more secure scrambler, based on the one-time pad principle.

A prototype was developed at Bell Telephone Laboratories, under the direction of A. B. Clark, assisted by British mathematician Alan Turing, and demonstrated to the US Army. The Army was impressed and awarded Bell Labs a contract for two systems in 1942. SIGSALY went into service in 1943 and remained in service until 1946.

Interestingly, the existence and nature of the project was not declassified until 1976, 30 years later. A more extensive survey of the project, with pictures, can be found here.

My internet searches did not reveal whether Bennett Jr.'s "Sigsaly" paper was ever published, but you can follow this link to a scanned copy.

According to Wikipedia, William R. Bennett Jr. "was an American physicist known for his pioneering work on gas lasers". His father, William R. Bennett Sr., worked on the Sigsaly project at Bell Labs during WWII, and his son's paper is based on his father's publication "Secret telephony as a historical example of spread-spectrum communication", IEEE Transactions on Communications 1983, along with "numerous conversations with my father, and the collection of papers I found in Dad's files after he died". Bennett Jr. adds that

Much of the testimony by key witnesses was rounded up by Dr. Robert Price, a much younger Fellow of the IEEE who had developed a strong interest in the history of "spread-spectrum" technology — ranging from an early war-time patent by the movie actress Hedy Lamarr to the creation of Sigsaly, itself.

Bennett Jr.'s essay is full of interesting stuff, but the part that's relevant to this post is on page 6:

When I learned about Sigsaly myself several decades later, the. system they had developed was totally amazing to me in many regards — the mere fact that it had worked at all being at the top of the list. Indeed, one of the people who designed electronic circuits for the project during the war named Orlando J. Murphy had enunciated an important principle that has since come to be widely known as "Murphy's Law" in description of the difficulties they encountered. As originally formulated, Murphy's Law stated, "You can always depend on complicated systems to break down in the worst possibly way under the worst possible conditions!" The X-System was kept so secret for so many years after the war ended that Murphy's most famous contribution to the project was totally obscured. Murphy was a man of eclectic interests. For example, he once used some frequency measuring equipment he had built to investigate the concert pitch (supposedly, based on the international convention that "A" above middle "C" should be tuned to 440 Hz) of major orchestras and soloists who broadcast live concerts over the air. He found that out of 750 observations, the mean value of "A" was 441.3 Hz, with extreme variations from 434 Hz for a dance band up to 448 Hz on two occasions for string quartets. Orchestras varied at random during the course of a given selection by as much as 2 Hz. Not surprisingly, string instruments showed the most variation in pitch and were generally sharp. However, singers showed so much momentto- moment variation as to make the measurements of questionable value. Dad told me once that he had written up a brief history of Murphy's Law after the war and tried to get it published in one of the electrical engineering journals. The note was rejected, probably because it was merely a "human interest story.:' In spite of all the secrecy, the basic concept of "Murphy's Law" leaked out and has since popped up all over the world — but without Orlando's name on it.

The University of Texas physics department has a memorial page for Orlando Joseph Murphy, which has some pictures but doesn't mention the law possibly named for him.

Orlando Murphy's SIGSALY work took place several years before Edward Murphy's high-speed rocket sled work. But this leaves it unclear whether these were two independent sources, or whether Orlando's aphorism traveled the engineering underground to Wright-Patterson at a time when its technical context remained classified.

(Interestingly, Murphy's Law is missing from Mintzberg's Maxims of Management, though it's indirectly referenced under the heading of Wolf's Law, and there are many other useful aphorisms in the list.)



  1. Stephen Goranson said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 5:51 am

    As is also documented in the wikipedia article, physicist and mathematician Howard Percy "Bob" Robertson (1903–1961) has been quoted as using "Murphy's Law" before the Muroc Army Air Field (later renamed Edwards AFB) test.

    Robertson also did classified work during WW II.

    And there may not have been an historical Murphy individual, if, as suggested, the "law" is a variation on a somewhat misremembered one by mathematician Augustus De Morgan, writing on June 23, 1866.

  2. Simon Koppel said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 6:17 am

    There's an entire podcast episode about the origin of Murphy's law, which seems well-researched but doesn't mention Orlando at all. https://slate.com/podcasts/decoder-ring/2019/12/nick-spark-murphys-law-origin-rocket-tests-california-desert

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 7:22 am

    The late Bill Bennett (Jr.) was, rather more so in retrospect than I may have appreciated at the time, an important and positive presence in my undergraduate education in his role as master of my residential college. Larry Horn may have taught me about allophones and ergativity and whatnot but Master Bennett taught other lessons more implicitly, about life and whatnot. Apparently the "college house" at Penn where Mark Liberman is the no-longer-called-"master" is just a one-year thing rather than a four-year thing, but I wish him the same outcome of being remembered fondly several decades from now by middle-aged alumni who never took a class with him or read any of his scholarly articles.

  4. Peter B. Golden said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 11:03 am

    I have often heard Murphy's Law mentioned with the follow up: "and Murphy was an optimist"

  5. Chips Mackinolty said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 7:52 pm

    I've always known it, via my mother–a diligent proof reader–as "Muphry's Law"!

  6. John Kozak said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 3:30 am

    Wasn't one end of SIGSALY in the basement of Selfridges?

  7. Stephen Goranson said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 9:02 am

    The papers of H. P. Robertson, who is so far the earliest documented attested user of Murphy’s Law (the title, plus the definition—the definition preexists the title), are at CalTech. They include many letters to and from E. T. [Eric Temple] Bell (1883-1960), Robertson’s former teacher and later a colleague—and a published historian of math(s), e.g. Men of Mathematics, which he had originally entitled The Lives of Mathematicians, which despite the later published-demanded inaccurate title, included Sofia [or Sofya] Kovalevskaya (1850-1891).

    Or, if there were a relevant individual Murphy (to transition from De Morgan), maybe consider George Moseley Murphy (1903-1968), co-discoverer of deuterium (heavy water). Known to Robertson, who did extensive secret work during WW II.

    If the Wm. R. Bennett Jr. paper still exists, no doubt, online publication would be easy and welcome.

    The letters now at CalTech between Robertson and Bell might be worth checking, if anyone there or nearby is interested. Robertson (quoted and published by Anne Roe as interviewed in early 1949, before the Muroc tests) said he "always" liked Murphy's Law, which suggests he used it earlier than that.

  8. DMcCunney said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 1:07 pm

    Years back, my then employer sent me to Alamogordo, NM, as part of a tech team bringing a new facility we were building there online. I visited the local Air and Space museum, which had the original rocket sled used in the USAF project MX981 experiments. I sat in it. (I think I was the only one on my team who knew what it was and why it was significant.) The pilot during those tests was Captain John P. Stapp, MD, an Air Force doctor. It caused detached retinas in both eyes , and later nasty vision problems as a result. The Air force got a pointed lesson in what G forces a human pilot *couldn't* take.

  9. Jason said,

    July 11, 2021 @ 3:53 pm

    Turing had only the most minor consultative role in the development of SIGSALY in his brief visit to Bell Labs in early 1943. Shannon, Dudley or Nyquist deserve top billing here, not Turing. The Wikipedia cult of Turing strikes again.

  10. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 11:28 am

    I'm imagining Orlando describing his observation to Edward in particular specifically so that the aphorism would get the right name for the wrong reason when spread among people who could talk about their work.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 8:31 am

    By chance I just came across an interesting alternative formulation of the Law in John McPhee's "Atchafalaya" (anthologized in the collection _The Control of Nature_), viz.

    "You've heard of Murphy — 'What can happen will happen'? This is where Murphy lives."

    Note the absence of an explicit statement that the full range of "what can happen" necessarily includes things you would probably prefer not happen, and the treatment of "Murphy" as an essentially folkloric personage like Kilroy, whose historicity is irrelevant to the point.

    The speaker FWIW is LeRoy "Dugie" Dugas, a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers, described by McPhee as "manager of the apparatus" at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_River_Control_Structure.

  12. Stephen Goranson said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 9:26 am

    There was no Ur-Murphy.
    Compare McPhee's “what can happen will happen’ with Augustus De Morgan's (earlier, reprinted from 1866 in Budget of Paradoxes editions):
    "The first experiment already illustrates a truth of the theory, well confirmed by practice, what-ever can happen will happen if we make trials enough."
    De Morgan morphed to Murphy.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 15, 2021 @ 2:40 pm

    Next the debunkers will be claiming that there is no actual historical Ur-Murphy behind the genesis of "Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?" and/or "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?"

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