MIGHTY HISTORY
Daven Hiskey

The story of 'Murphy' from 'Murphy's law' and the amazing Dr. Stapp

The universe has been finding ways to mess with people long before Edward A. Murphy uttered his famed statement in the aftermath of Dr. John Paul Stapp strapping himself onto a rocket powered sled. One of the earliest instances of this "law" being stated explicitly happened in 1877 where Alfred Holt, in an address to the Institution of Civil Engineers, said, "It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later…"

By 1908, it had become a well-loved maxim among magicians as well, as explained by Nevil Maskelyne in The Magic Circular: "It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion . . . everything that can go wrong will go wrong…"

This was reiterated by Adam Hull Shirk in The Sphinx in 1928, "It is an established fact that in nine cases out of ten whatever can go wrong in a magical performance will do so."


This all brings us to our unsung hero of the hour, Dr. John Paul Stapp — a man whose work has saved hundreds of thousands of lives since, and who Joseph Kittinger — who famously did a high altitude jump from 102,800 ft — called the "bravest man I've ever met… He knew the effects of what he was getting himself into… And he never hesitated."

Dr. John Paul Stapp.

Born in Brazil, the son of American missionaries there, Stapp eventually became an English major in college, but he changed career paths due to a traumatic incident that occurred during his Christmas break of 1928 when a 2 year old cousin of his was severely burned in a fireplace. Stapp helped to try to nurse the child back to health, but efforts failed and, 63 hours after getting burned, the toddler died. Said Stapp, "It was the first time I had ever seen anyone die. I decided right then I wanted to be a doctor."

Unable to afford to go to medical school initially, after he earned a Master's Degree in Zoology, he instead started teaching chemistry and zoology at Decatur College in Texas while he saved up money. Two years later, he attended the University of Texas where he got a PhD in Biophysics. Next up, he went to the University of Minnesota Medical School and got a Doctor of Medicine degree while working as a research assistant there.

Initially planning on becoming a pediatrician, Stapp changed career paths after joining the Army Medical Corps during WWII. While working as a flight surgeon, among other things, he was heavily involved in designing high altitude oxygen systems as well as studying the effects of high altitude/high speed flight on the human body. The end goal of all of this was to create better safety systems for pilots. During this time, he became puzzled at how some people would survive crashes, even extreme ones, while others in similar or lesser crashes would receive fatal injuries.

This all brings us around to Project MX-981 at the Edwards Air Force Base in 1945.

Up until this point, the prevailing theory was that a human body could not withstand more than 18Gs of force without suffering a fatal injury. The problem here was that airplanes of the age were flying faster and higher than ever. As such, the military wanted to know if their pilots could safely eject at these high velocities without being killed, as well as to try to design the safest possible system for doing so.

Testing towards this end was overseen by Dr. Stapp, using a rocket powered sled called the "Gee Whiz". This was placed on rails on a 2000 foot track, at the end of which was an approximately 50 foot long section where a hydraulic braking system would stop the 1500 lb sled in its tracks.

Stapp rides the rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base.

The passenger aboard the cart was to initially be a 185 lb dummy named Oscar Eightball and then later chimpanzees. Stapp, however, had other ideas. He wanted to see what an actual human could handle, stating of Oscar Eightball at the project's onset, "You can throw this away. I'm going to be the test subject."

David Hill, who was in charge of collecting the test data throughout the experiments and making sure all the telemetry gear stayed working, said of this, they all thought Dr. Stapp must be joking as "We had a lot of experts come out and look at our situation. And there was a person from M.I.T. who said, if anyone gets 18 Gs, they will break every bone in their body. That was kind of scary."

Dr. Stapp, however, used his extensive knowledge of human physiology, as well as analyzing various crashes where people must have survived more than 18Gs of force, and determined the 18G limit was absurdly low if a proper restraint system was designed and used.

That said, Dr. Stapp wasn't stupid, but rather an excellent and meticulous researcher, who would soon earn the nickname, "The Careful Daredevil".

Thus, step one was first to design a proper restraint system and work out all the kinks in the testing apparatus. Towards this end, they conducted nearly three dozen trial runs using the dummy, which turned out to be for the best. For example, in test run number one, both the main and secondary braking systems didn't work owing to the triggering teeth breaking off, and, instead of stopping, Gee Whiz and Oscar Eightball shot off the tracks into the desert. Funny enough, after the teeth were beefed up, the braking cams engaged, but themselves immediately broke…

In yet another catastrophic failure, the forces were so extreme that Oscar broke free from his restraints. The result of this was his rubber face literally being ripped off thanks to the windscreen in front of his head. As for the rest of his body, it went flying through the air well over 700 feet (over 200 meters) from where the Gee Whiz stopped.

This brings us to about two years into the project on December 10, 1947 when Dr. Stapp decided it was his turn to be the dummy.

Initially strapping himself in facing backwards — a much safer way to experience extreme G-forces — the first run with a human aboard was a rather quaint 10Gs during the braking period.

After this, they continued to improve the restraint system as Dr. Stapp slowly ramped up the Gs all the way to 35 within six months of that first run. He stated of this, "The men at the mahogany desks thought the human body would never take 18 Gs; here we're taking twice that with no sweat!"

And by "no sweat", of course, he no doubt meant that throughout the tests, he'd suffered a hemorrhaged retina, fractured rib, lost several fillings from his teeth, got a series of concussions, cracked his collarbone, developed an abdominal hernia, developed countless bloody blisters caused by sand hitting his skin at extreme velocities, severe bruising, shattering his wrists, and fracturing his coccyx. But, you know, "no sweat".

While recovering, if further tests needed conducting in the interim, he did begin allowing other volunteers to do the job, but as soon as he was healthy enough again, Dr. Stapp was back in the seat instead. One of his coworkers on the project, George Nichols, stated that Stapp couldn't bare the idea of someone being seriously injured or killed in experiments he was conducting, so whenever possible made himself the guinea pig instead.

Of course, in order for the research to be as useful as possible and for other scientists to believe what Dr. Stapp was managing to endure, extremely accurate sensors were needed, which is where one Captain Edward A. Murphy comes in.

For a little background on Murphy, beyond very briefly helping out on this project, the highlights of his career included working on the SR-71, XB-70 Valkyrie, X-15 rocket plane, and helping to design the life support system for the Apollo missions.

Going back to Dr. Stapp's project, at the time Murphy was working on a separate project at Wright Field involving centrifuge, including designing some new sensor systems in the process. When Dr. Stapp heard about this, he asked if Murphy wouldn't mind adapting the sensors for use in Project MX-981, to which Murphy happily complied. More specifically, Murphy's sensor system would allow them to directly measure the G forces on the passenger, rather than relying on measuring the G forces on the sled body itself.

Now, before we go any further, we should point out that exact details of what occurred over the two days Murphy was directly involved in the project have been lost to history, despite many first hand accounts from several people. You might think it would make it easy to sort out given this, but human memory being what it is, the accounts from those who were there vary considerably.

This acrobatic airplane is pulling up in a +g maneuver; the pilot is experiencing several g's of inertial acceleration in addition to the force of gravity.

Illustrating this point in the most poignant way possible we have a quote from Chuck Yeager, who was good friends with Dr. Stapp. In the quote, Yeager was responding to the widely reported idea that Yeager had sought out Dr. Stapp to clear him for his famous flight where he broke the sound barrier. As to why he chose Dr. Stapp, Yeager supposedly felt that no other doctor but Stapp would clear him on account of Yeager's supposedly broken ribs.

Yeager's response to this almost universally reported story is as follows: "That's a bunch of crap!… That's the way rumors get started, by these people…who weren't even there…"

He goes on,

that's the same kind of crap…you get out of guys who were not involved and came in many years after. It's just like Tom Brokaw's book if you'll pardon the analogy here, about the best of the breed or something like that. Well, every guy who wrote his story about World War II did it fifty years after it happened. I'm a victim of the same damn thing. I tell it the way I remember it, and that's not the way it happened. I go back and I read a report that I did 55 years ago and I say, hmm, I'd better tell that story a little bit different. Well, that's human nature. You tell it the way you believe it and that's not necessarily the way that it happened. There's nothing more true than that.

During this impressive and extremely accurate rant about how difficult it is to get an accurate report of some historic event, even from those who were there, he notes of those writing about these things after, "Guys become, if you'll pardon my expression, sexual intellectuals. You know what the phrase is for that? Sexual intellectuals. They're fucking know-it-alls, that's what."

And, we're not going to lie, we mostly just included that little anecdote because we're pretty sure "Sexual Intellectuals (Fucking Know-It-Alls)" is the greatest description of the staff and subscribers of TodayIFoundOut we've ever come across, and we kind of wish we'd named the channel that (and are pretty sure we're going to make a t-shirt out of it…)

In any event, that caveat about the inherent inaccuracy of reporting history out of the way, this finally brings us around to the story of how Murphy and his law became a thing.

The general story that everybody seems to agree on is that Murphy or another worker there installed Murphy's sensors and then a chimpanzee was strapped into the sled to test them out. (Note here, that years later in an interview with People Magazine, Murphy would claim it was Dr. Stapp that was strapped in.) After the test run, however, they found the sensors hadn't worked at all, meaning the whole expensive and dangerous test had been run for nothing.

As to exactly why the sensors hadn't worked, there are a few versions of this tale. As for the aforementioned David Hill, he states that it was one of his own assistants, either Jerry Hollabaugh or Ralph DeMarco, he couldn't remember which, who installed the sensors incorrectly. As Hill explained in an interview with Nick T. Spake, author of the book A History of Murphy's Law, "If you take these two over here and add them together. 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."

Cover of "A History of Murphy's Law."

George Nichols, however, claimed Hill and DeMarco had both double checked the wiring before hand, but had missed that it had been wired up backwards. That said, Nichols stated it wasn't DeMarco nor Hill's fault, as the wiring had been done back at Wright Field by Murphy's team.

Said Nichols, "When Murphy came out in the morning, and we told him what happened… he was unhappy…" Stating, "If that guy [his assistant] has any way of making a mistake… He will."

Nichols, however, blamed Murphy as Murphy should have examined the sensor system before hand to ensure it had been wired correctly, as well as tested the sensors before they were ever installed in the sled, and on top of it all should have given them time to test everything themselves before a live run on the sled. However, as Murphy was only to be there for two days, he'd supposedly rushed them. Nichols stated this inspired the team to not repeat Murphy's mistakes.

Said Nichols, "If it can happen, it will happen… So you've got to go through and ask yourself, if this part fails, does this system still work, does it still do the function it is supposed to do? What are the single points of failure? Murphy's Law established the drive to put redundancy in. And that's the heart of reliability engineering."

Hill also claims this ultimately morphed into the mantra among the group, "if anything can go wrong, it will."

As for Murphy himself, years later in an interview with People Magazine, he would state what he originally said was, "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." He then claimed when Dr. Stapp heard this, directly after the failed sled run, he shortened it and called it "Murphy's Law", saying "from now on we're going to have things done according to Murphy's Law."

In yet another interview, Murphy painted an entirely different picture than accounts from Hill and Nichols', stating he'd sent the sensors ahead of time, and had only gone there to investigate when they'd malfunctioned. He stated when he looked into it, "they had put the strain gauges on the transducers ninety degrees off."

Importantly here, contrary to what the other witnesses said of how Murphy had blamed his assistant, in the interview, Murphy said it was his own fault, "I had made very accurate drawings of the thing for them, and discussed it with the people who were going to make them… but I hadn't covered everything. I didn't tell them that they had positively to orient them in only one direction. So I guess about that time I said, 'Well, I really have made a terrible mistake here, I didn't cover every possibility.' And about that time, Major Stapp says, 'Well, that's a good candidate for Murphy's Law'. I thought he was going to court martial me. But that's all he said."

Murphy then went on to explain to the interviewer that he actually didn't remember the exact words he said at the time, noting "I don't remember. It happened thirty five years ago, you know."

This might all have you wondering how exactly this statement that nobody seemed to be able to remember clearly came to be so prevalent in public consciousness?

It turns out, beyond being incredibly brave, brilliant, and hell-bent on saving lives, even if it cost him his own, Dr. Stapp was also hilarious from all accounts from people describing him. He even wrote a book with jokes and various witty sayings called For Your Moments of Inertia. For example, "I'm as lonely as a cricket with arthritis." or "Better a masochist than never been kissed…"

Or how about this gem from an interview where he was asked about any lasting effects on him as a result of the experiments — Dr. Stapp wryly responded, the only residual negative effect was "all the lunches and dinners I have to go to now…"

Beyond all this, he was also a collector of "Laws", even coming up with one of his own, Stapp's Law — "The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle."

When collecting these laws, he would name them after the person he heard them from, though often re-wording them to be more succinct, which, for whatever it's worth, seems to align most closely to Murphy's own account of how "his" law came about.

And as for this then becoming something the wider public found out about, during one of his interviews about the project, Dr. Stapp was asked, "How is it that no one has been severely injured — or worse — during your tests?"

It was here that Stapp stated, he wasn't too worried about it because the entire team adhered to "Murphy's Law". He then explained that they always kept in mind that whatever could go wrong, would, and thus, extreme effort was made to think up everything that could go wrong and fix it before the test was actually conducted.

Going back to Project MX-981, having now reached 35 Gs after 26 runs by himself and several others by 11 volunteers, Dr. Stapp needed a faster sled. After all, at this point humans were flying at super sonic speeds and whether or not they could survive ejecting at those speeds needed to be known.

Enter the Sonic Wind at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. This sled could use up to 12 rockets capable of producing a combined 50,000 pounds of thrust, resulting in speeds as high as 750 mph. The track was about 3,550 feet long, with the braking system using water scoops. The braking could then be varied by raising or lowering the water level slightly.

This now brings us to December 10, 1954, when Dr. Stapp would pull off his most daring and final experiment.

Previous to this run, Dr. Stapp stated, "I practiced dressing and undressing with the lights out so if I was blinded I wouldn't be helpless", as he assumed he would probably be blind afterwards, if he survived at all. He would also state when he was sitting there waiting for the rockets to be fired, "I said to myself, 'Paul, it's been a good life.'"

In order to stop his arms and legs from flapping involuntarily in the wind during the test, they were securely strapped down and a mouth guard was inserted to keep his teeth from breaking off.

All set, he then blasted off on his 29th and final sled run, using nine solid fuel rockets, capable of producing 40,000 pounds of thrust.

As an interesting aside here, beyond ground based cameras, none other than Joe Kittinger piloted a T-33 over head with a photographer in back filming it.

As for the sled, it accelerated from 0 up to 632 miles per hour (1,017 kilometers per hour) in a mere 5 seconds, resulting in about 20 Gs of force on the acceleration phase. Then, in the span of just 1.4 seconds, he came to a full stop, experiencing 46.2 G's of force in the other direction, meaning his body weighed almost 7,000 pounds at the peak G force! In the process, he had also set the record for highest landspeed of any human.

Col. John Paul Stapp aboard the "Gee Whiz" rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base.

(Air Force photo)

Said Kittinger of watching this, "He was going like a bullet… He went by me like I was standing still, and I was going 350 mph… I thought, that sled is going so damn fast the first bounce is going to be Albuquerque. I mean, there was no way on God's earth that sled could stop at the end of the track. No way. He stopped in a fraction of a second. It was absolutely inconceivable that anybody could go that fast and then just stop, and survive."

Nevertheless, when he was unstrapped from the chair, Dr. Stapp was alive, but as Nichols would observe, "His eyes had hemorrhaged and were completely filled with blood. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible."

As for Dr. Stapp, he would state, it felt "like being assaulted in the rear by a fast freight train." And that on the deceleration phase, "I felt a sensation in the eyes…somewhat like the extraction of a molar without anesthetic."

He had also cracked some ribs, broken his wrists, and had some internal injuries to his respiratory and circulatory systems.

And on the note of his eyes, he was initially blind after, with it assumed that his retinas had detached. However, upon investigation, it was determined they had not, and within a few hours his sight mostly came back, with minor residual effects on his vision that lasted the rest of his life.

Apparently not knowing when to quit, once he had healed up, he planned yet another experiment to really see the limits of human endurance via strapping himself to that same sled and attempting to reach 1,000 mph this time…

When asked why, he stated, "I took my risks for information that will always be of benefit. Risks like those are worthwhile."

To lead up to this, he conducted further experiments, going all the way up to 80Gs with a test dummy, at which point the Sonic Wind itself ripped off the tracks and was damaged.

It is probably for the best that it was here that his superiors stepped in. As you might imagine given his end goal was seemingly to figure out the extreme upper limit of G forces a human could survive with a perfected restraint system, and to use himself as the guinea pig until he found that limit, Dr. Stapp had previously run into the problem of his superiors ordering him to stop and instead to use chimpanzees exclusively. But while he did occasionally use chimpanzees, he went ahead and ignored the direct order completely. After all, he needed to be able to feel it for himself or be able to talk to the person experiencing the effects of the extreme Gs to get the best possible data. And, of course, no better way to find out what a human could take than use a human.

Rather than getting in trouble, he ultimately got a promotion thanks to the extreme benefits of his work. However, after his 46.2G run, they decided to shut down the experiment altogether as a way to get him to listen. After all, he had already achieved the intended goal of helping to develop better restraint and ejection systems, and proved definitively that a human could survive ejecting at the fastest speeds aircraft of the day could travel.

Now, at this point you might be thinking that's all quite impressive, but that's not Dr. Stapp helping to save "hundreds of thousands" of lives as we stated before. So how did he do that?

Well, during the experiments, Dr. Stapp became acutely aware that with a proper restraint system, most car accidents should be survivable, yet most cars of the age not only didn't have any restraint systems whatsoever, they also were generally designed in ways to maximize injury in a crash with unforgiving surfaces, strong frames and bodies that would not crumple on impact, doors that would pop open in crashes, flinging occupants out, etc.

In fact, Dr. Stapp frequently pointed out to his superiors that they lost about as many pilots each year to car accidents as they did in the air. So while developing great safety systems in the planes was all well and good, they'd save a lot of lives simply by installing a restraint system into the cars of all their pilots and requiring they use them.

The military didn't take this advice, but Dr. Stapp wasn't about to give up. After all, tens of thousands of people each year in the U.S. alone were dying in car accidents when he felt many shouldn't have. Thus, in nearly every interview he gave about his famous experiments almost from the very beginning of the project, he would inevitably guide the conversation around to the benefits of what they were doing if adopted in automobiles.

Not stopping there, he went on a life-long public campaign talking to everyone from car manufacturers to politicians, trying to get it required that car manufacturers include seat belts in their vehicles, as well as sharing his team's data and restraint system designs.

Beyond that, he used his clout within the Air Force to convince them to allow him to conduct a series of experiments into auto safety, test crashing cars in a variety of ways using crash test dummies and, in certain carefully planned tests, volunteer humans, to observe the effects. This was one of the first times anyone had tried such a scientifically rigorous, broad look into commercial automobile safety. He also tested various restraint systems, in some tests subjecting the humans to as high as a measured 28 Gs. Results in hand, in May of 1955 he held a conference to bring together automobile engineers, scientists, safety council members and others to come observe the tests and learn of the results of his team's research.

He then repeated this for a few years until Stapp was reassigned by the Air Force, at which point he requested Professor James Ryan of the University of Minnesota host the 4th annual such event, which Ryan then named the "Stapp Car-Crash and Field Demonstration Conference", which is still held today.

Besides this and other ways he championed improvement in automobile safety, he also served as a medical advisor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, in both heavily pushing for better safety systems.

It is no coincidence that not long after Dr. Stapp started these campaigns, car manufacturers started installing seatbelts as a matter of course, as well as started to put much more serious thought into making cars safer in crashes.

In the end, while Dr. Stapp got little public credit for helping to convince car manufacturers to prioritize automobile safety, and provided much of the initial data to help them design such systems, he was at least invited to be present when President Johnson signed the bill that made seat belts required in cars in 1966.

Bonus Facts:

  • Besides ignoring direct orders to stop using himself as a guinea pig, other ways Dr. Stapp apparently used to frequently flout the rules was to, on his own time, freely treat dependents of people who worked at Edwards' who were nonetheless not eligible for medical care. He would typically do this via doing house calls to airmen's homes to keep the whole thing secret, including apparently attending to Chuck Yeager's sons in this way according to Yeager.
  • It turns out Murphy was also good friends with none other than Lawrence Peter, remembered today for the Peter Principal — people inevitably get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. According Murphy's son, Robert, at one point Peter and Murphy tried to get together with Cyril Northcote Parkinson of Parkinson's Law — "Work expands to meet the time and money that is available." However, Robert claims that fateful meeting ended up getting canceled when other matters came up to prevent the get together.
  • One other strong safety recommendation Dr. Stapp pushed for, particularly in aviation, was to turn passenger seats around to face backwards, as this is drastically safer in crashes. And, at least in aviation would be simple to do on any commercial airline, requiring no modification other than to turn the seat around in its track. As Stapp and subsequent research by NASA shows, humans can take the most G-forces and receive fewer injuries overall with "eyes back" force, where the G-forces are pushing you back into your seat, with the seat cushions themselves also lending a hand in overall safety. This also insures tall people won't smack their heads and bodies against anything in front of them in a crash. Despite the massive safety benefits here for people of all ages, outside of car seats for babies and toddlers, nobody anywhere seems interested in leveraging the extreme benefits of rear facing passengers to increase general safety.
  • If you're wondering about the safest place on a plane to sit, funny enough, that's the rear. In fact, you're approximately 40% more likely to survive a plane crash if you sit in the back of the plane, rather than the front. The other advantage to the rear is that most passengers choose not to sit in the back. So unless the plane is full, you might get a row of seats to yourself. (Of course, a bathroom is also often in the rear on planes, soooo.) Another factor to consider is where the closest exit is. As a general rule, studies examining accidents have shown you'll want to be within six rows of an emergency exit to maximize your survival chances. So if the plane doesn't have a rear exit, that's something to be factored in.
  • During Joe Kittinger's then record leap from about 102,800 feet on August 16, 1960, the following happened during the ascent:
    At 43,000 feet, I find out [what can go wrong]. My right hand does not feel normal. I examine the pressure glove; its air bladder is not inflating. The prospect of exposing the hand to the near-vacuum of peak altitude causes me some concern. From my previous experiences, I know that the hand will swell, lose most of its circulation, and cause extreme pain…. I decide to continue the ascent, without notifying ground control of my difficulty… Circulation has almost stopped in my unpressurized right hand, which feels stiff and painful… [Upon landing] Dick looks at the swollen hand with concern. Three hours later the swelling disappeared with no ill effect.
    His total ascent took 1 hour and 31 minutes, he stayed at the peak altitude for 12 minutes, and his total decent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds, so his hand was exposed to a near vacuum for quite some time without long term ill effects. Incidentally, during his fall, he achieved a peak speed of 614 mph, nearly as fast as Dr. Stapp had managed in his little rocket sled. His experience, however, was very different than Dr. Stapp's. Said Kittinger,
    There's no way you can visualize the speed. There's nothing you can see to see how fast you're going. You have no depth perception. If you're in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It's the same thing if you're free falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don't feel it. You don't have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.