The History of the Lottery


Lotteries have a long history in human society, from casting lots to determine fates to the ancient Greeks and Romans using them for municipal repair, to the modern American state lotteries of the 1700s that were used to finance everything from canals to universities. While they are sometimes criticized as gambling in disguise, the fact is that they provide an excellent opportunity for people to make money without having to work at it.

Lottery games are typically marketed in the form of tickets that are sold to the public, usually at convenience stores or in dedicated lottery shops. The bettor writes his name and stakes on the ticket, which is then deposited with the lottery organization for later drawing. The ticket may be a paper slip with a numbered receipt or an electronic device that records the identification of each bettor and stakes placed by him. Most modern lotteries use computers to record and distribute the winning tickets.

The initial public response to a lottery is usually enthusiastic, as demonstrated by the huge jackpots that have been awarded in recent decades. After the initial excitement, however, interest tends to wane, and revenues decline until the introduction of new games or innovations in the way that the lottery is run can restore them to popularity. In the early years of the modern state lotteries, for example, revenues rapidly expanded to record levels and then began to ebb before a series of innovations led to renewed growth.

Throughout the world, governments and private promoters continue to organize lotteries for a variety of purposes. Prizes range from small amounts of cash to valuable goods, such as cars and houses. The first European lotteries in the modern sense of the term appeared in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders with towns attempting to raise funds for fortifications, as well as charitable and governmental projects. Francis I of France allowed the establishment of lotteries for private and public profit in a number of cities, and a public lottery was established in Modena under the auspices of the d’Este family in 1476.

Once lotteries are established, they typically enjoy broad public support and develop extensive, specific constituencies that include convenience store operators (who sell the most lottery tickets); lotto suppliers (heavy contributions by these businesses to state political campaigns are often reported); teachers (in states where a portion of lottery proceeds is earmarked for education); and state legislators who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue. Although the initial discussion of lotteries is often centered on their desirability, debate soon shifts to specific features of their operations and criticisms of their impact on compulsive gamblers or regressive effects on lower-income groups. Public policy decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, and rarely reflect a comprehensive overview of the lottery industry. This characteristic has given rise to criticisms that state lotteries are not responsive to their constituents.