Geek Trivia: Rule of dumb

Who is the Murphy cited in the infamous Murphy's Law?

Colonel Joseph Kittinger is emblematic of two things: The fine line between brave and crazy, and the enduring significance of Murphy's Law. Kittinger is perhaps best known as the United States Air Force officer who was bold enough to be the lead test subject for Project Excelsior, otherwise known as "that crazy stunt where the astronaut dude skydived out of a balloon at the edge of space."

That dude was Kittinger. On Aug. 16, 1960, he leapt from a balloon at an altitude of 102,800 feet and achieved a descent velocity of over 600 miles per hour -- thus, the crazy vs. brave debate.

The Murphy's Law part comes in when you note that the glove of Kittinger's pressure suit leaked during the descent, and he injured his hand. While that may seem insignificant given all the potential risks, bear in mind this was Kittinger's third high-altitude balloon jump.

On the first one, he slipped in a 22-G flat spin and blacked out, with only a self-deploying parachute saving him from certain death. Still, Kittinger was gutsy enough to try two more -- higher -- jumps, and he still couldn't get his gear working correctly.

Of course, that didn't stop Kittinger, who did three combat tours in Vietnam after his Excelsior days, finally getting shot down on May 11, 1972 and spending 11 months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp. Like Murphy's Law says: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong."

But it seems as if Murphy's Law took an extra-special interest in Colonel Kittinger. If so, it's probably because the contemporary incarnation of Murphy's Law -- including the name Murphy's Law -- has some direct ties to Kittinger himself.

Codified pessimism has been around since time immemorial, but the verbal shorthand for probable disaster, Murphy's Law, was coined by Kittinger's fellow Air Force officer and insanely brave test subject, Colonel John Paul Stapp -- the one-time Fastest Man on Earth.

It was Stapp who rode rocket sleds at Edwards Air Force Base in the late 1940s as part of research into the effect of g-forces on humans -- with Kittinger flying an observational chase plane. It was during these borderline suicidal rocket sled tests that Stapp coined the phrase Murphy's Law -- after an equipment failure as frustrating as any Kittinger might later endure -- and named it after an actual person named Murphy.


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