Search This Blog

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Henry Handel Murphy and Murphy's Law

Murphy's dates are unknown, but his raisins were declared by Alexis Soyer to be truly superb, but this sidelight on colonial cuisine is only known today by a small handful of aficionadi.

While Murphy's Law is commonly quoted in laboratories all over the English-speaking world, few have heard of the tragic life of the original Murphy, a man whose life makes one of the saddest stories in the history of science. The disasters and near-disasters began almost as soon as he was born, and dogged him all of his days. For example, Murphy was to be named after the novelist Charlotte Bronte, and was only saved the ignominy of being called Charlotte because the registry clerk who handled the case was cross-eyed.

Henry Handel Murphy, shortly before his death.
As an adult, Murphy began to study the mathematical theory of disasters, parallelling the much later 'catastrophe theory' almost exactly. Failing to get recognition for his work in Europe, Murphy packed his belongings into a large crate, together with some of his new patent magnets, and sailed for Australia in the sailing vessel Dunbar.

His magnets were another failure, as they tended to change their polarisation without warning, and sometimes even to develop identical poles at both ends, at which point the magnets would repel themselves into a small heap of iron filings.

There are those who maintain it was Murphy's magnets (the ones which survived the long trip) that caused the Dunbar to be wrecked at the Gap near Sydney, when they affected the ship's compass. We will never know now: but we do know his records of his disaster theory were all destroyed in the wreck, save for a few tantalising scraps which he painstakingly wrote out in his old age, only to see them eaten almost immediately by a passing rat.

Soon after his arrival in Sydney, Murphy married, and soon the union was blessed with several children, causing the strongly religious and ecstatic Murphy to make his often-misquoted comment "Thank Heavens for small Murphies".

Needing to earn money to keep his family, and unable to hold down permanent employment, Murphy began work on his classic text on agricultural instruments, The Book of Shovels, although most extant editions incorporate his other two works in this genre, the slim volumes entitled Westward Hoe and The Rake's Progress. "I believe in calling a spud a spud," said Murphy of this work.

The seminal influence of Murphy on the old cobblers of Sydney who worked in chamois leather will be apparent to anybody who has read the chapter entitled 'The Soft Shoe Shovel', while the recovery of Australia's film industry shows the influences he had on the interpretation of the work of that fine cinematographer, Charles Shovel.

But Murphy's finest influential hour comes in his definitive interpretation of the explorers X. Hume and Shovell. These two fine examples of the sun-bronzed pre-Anzac gave rise to the expression digger and browned which many years earlier had been expressed in the music of Bach, according to some commentators.

This of course, is totally wrong, for Bach's music was notably contrapuntal, and, in spite of the claims of his more strident critics, Murphy was admirably unopposed to puns.

His critics even offer quotations to prove their case, but we now know that what Murphy actually said was that the bun was the lowest form of wheat. Regrettably, it seems that the agricultural reporter to whom he spoke had been keeping an ear to the ground, and still had mud in his ears.

That said, his music was very modern and most of his works were destroyed  by outraged music lovers. For example, the illustration on the left shows the only surviving portion of his Coffee Can't Hurt Her, which was scored for prepared lagerphones and unprepared soprano.

It is believed that this fragment represents the moment, just before the trap door opens under the lagerphone players. They weren't prepared, either!

In the end, Murphy turned from rural themes to the study of suburban agriculture, and he wrote a short treatise (To the Victa Belongs the Soils) on what he mistakenly took to be a New Zealand invention, the Rotorua Moa. Shortly after, Murphy left Sydney on the brig Hesperus, and was never seen again.

Post script: If you are going to make your way in the world of science, you need to be able to recognise nonsense when you run across it. I suggest that you analyse the tale of Henry Handel Murphy, and identify the key points that you believe to be true facts, and the key points that are complete nonsense. Much of the pseudo-science you encounter will be like this: a mixture of easily checked facts, and a great deal of rubbish. If you were fooled, perhaps you should read the section on pseudo-science in this essay of mine. Or come and talk to me about the bridge I have for sale . . .

The first picture? Enoch Rudder.  The second? Look, if you need to be told (and that's above average), you're better off not asking.


  1. Sure the invention wasn't the Rotarua Chlozoist? Claimed to have been invented in the Hills of Rotarua..

  2. Henry Handel Murphy did not originate the Clozoist, though he produced a bright green version that he marketed as a Hoist of a Different Colour. Sad to say, the Rotorua Moas flew in and ate the lot.