The idea of a piece on unintended consequences kept rattling around in my mind today, so tonight I spent a little time on the fantastic 19th Century Index tonight, looking for uses of it and related terms– combinations of unintended, unexpected, and unanticipated, and effects or consequences.

Many of the early uses of the terms referred to politics and policy. William Penn, writing in 1829, warned that "If our Statesmen are about to interpret treaties, on the principle of favouring the party which assumed a superiority, they must take care lest there should be some very unexpected consequences." Nearly twenty years later, the British Spectator fretted over the "unintended consequences" of Parliamentary legislation, and gives a chilling example of how well-meaning policies can have negative consequences for those it means to help:

The opprobrium of Parliament is its unintentional legislation the unforeseen or at least unintended consequences of the laws which it is incessantly passing on partial views. It has been busy for years passing acts "to abolish the slave-trade"; while the most certain consequence has been an immense increase in the mortality of the slave-ships: to judge of causes by their effects, therefore, Parliament has for so many years been passing acts to increase the mortality in the slave-trade.

In 1853, the American magazine Albion expressed "perplexity" at the political situation in France arising from "unexpected effects proceeding from causes which at first were regarded as entirely personal." In 1856, New England magazine Littell's Living Age reported "on some of the unanticipated and unintended consequences of the war in the East."

Other publications use the term "unexpected effects:" in 1867, for example, Punch wrote of the "unexpected effects of recent legislation." (However, this phrase could also refer to things that were just unusual, rather than unforseeable: Harper's described the German songs and costumes that came out during fair days as "unexpected effects." ) Finally, in 1918, the British Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art wrote that "of the unanticipated effects" of the Great War "is that it has brought home to us publicity-literally into our houses."

So the term goes back a ways. I wonder when it started being used to refer to technological change. I'll bet that's a post World War II thing.

And of course, Robert Merton wrote an article, published in the American Sociological Review in 1936 on "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action." I'll need to see if I stand a chance of saying anything new, or whether I can stand on the shoulders of that giant.