Though it is often cited to "anonymous", and other times to Ben Franklin (see below), its earliest recorded author seems to have been poet George Herbert (1593 - 1633). In a work called Jacula Prudentum (dated 1651 in several places, so a posthumous work unless that date's wrong (also, see here for a note on the title.)) Jacula Prudentum was a collection of proverbs -- proverbs he may have gotten from contemporary folklore -- meaning that this phrase may not have been originally his; but he seems to be the earliest person whose name we know associated with it. At any rate, Herbert wrote:
For want of a naile the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost.And that's where he ended it. (The work as such is not online, but you can see the relevant page via google book search here (p. 160 -- try searching for "for want of a nail".))
Then, a century or so later, Benjamin Franklin took the quote and modified it, using it as one of the maxims which preface the 1757 version of Poor Richard's Almanac (at least according to Bartlett's Familiar quotations). Franklin wrote:
And again, he adviseth to circumspection and care, even in the smallest matters, because sometimes a little neglect may breed great mischief; adding, for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and for want of a horse the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail.Note that the second cite (pun intended) linked above gives the quote's context in Benjamin Franklin's "The Way to Wealth" -- singed by 'Richard', so presumably it's from the almanac, although I don't know for sure. Notably, the more complete version's use of italics distinguishes (somewhat) what was original with Franklin with the rest, although he doesn't cite Herbert as such.
It's also worth noting that Franklin's opening phrase -- "a little neglect may breed mischief" -- puts a very particular spin on the notion. It turns it into one of Franklin's little maxims of instruction -- a very characteristic keeping-working-harder sentiment. By contrast, the more familiar version is more about sensitive dependence on initial conditions. An interesting twist for some cultural historian to trace out, perhaps.
The most familiar version, I believe, is the nursery rhyme variation. It's all over the place (e.g.), variously credited, but usually written the same way that I remembered it:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,The longer version is usually cited to "anonymous" -- certainly I haven't seen any author claimed for the final half. The two significant variations seem to be in the articles -- some people say, in the second half of each phrase, "a shoe", "a horse", etc, rather than using the definite article -- and in the final line, where some versions add the word "horseshoe" before the word "nail". I don't know about the articles, but I think that the word "horseshoe" detracts rather than adds to it (it's unnecessary, it breaks the symmetry, etc.)
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of the horse, the rider was lost,
For want of the rider, the battle was lost,
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a nail!
One nice rendition of that version can be found here (the link's at the bottom of the page, or here's a direct link), in a pro-library advertisement (a good cause if ever there was one). They add "one book can change a life; imagine what a library could do." Just as Franklin turned it into a moral maxim for self-improvement, they turn it into a pro-charity story -- in, admittedly, a rather sentimental way. I wonder if that sort of sentimentalism-for-charity is typical of our time the way that Franklin's discipline-for-success was of his (narrowly speaking)?
Interestingly, that's not quite the end of it: there is another version that is even longer -- and arguably better. In the article on "Causation" in the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics, Wesley C. Salmon wrote:
An old nursery rhyme (which I'm extending a bit)... "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of the shoe, the horse was lost; for want of the horse, the rider was lost; for want of a rider, the message was lost; for want of the message, the battle was lost; for want of the battle, the war was lost; for want of a victory, a Kingdom was lost. All for want of a nail."The benefit of this version is that (as befits a philosopher's revision) the causality chain is stronger. The line about the loss of a single rider determining the outcome of a battle has always struck me as the least convincing in the causal chain (and, notably, was not in the versions given by either Franklin or Herbert). Here it is spelled out in a convincing fashion. But the final link -- battle-war -> victory-Kingdom -- is badly marred by the word switch ("war" in the first, "victory" in the second); even if the idea is clear, the aesthetics are thrown off. (This isn't online either, but it comes up in a Google book search here; it's from p. 27, or search for 'for want of a nail' in that book.)
So that's the nail that -- running down the causal chain -- caused this particular rhyme to stick in my head. It does seem that Herbert (and Franklin, maybe, although he's more widely credited even though Herbert wrote it (or wrote it down) first) should get more credit than he does for starting the poem off.
(Sources: I didn't find any single web site that presented this story quite as I just did (or I would have just linked to it!), but the bits and pieces come from here, here and here in addition to the web sources cited above.)
Cross-posted, with minor edits (and a change of title), from my blog, Attempts.