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Why were lotteries created?

Lotteries have been around for centuries and played in countries all over the world. At their core, lotteries offer the chance for players to risk a small amount of money for the possibility of winning a large prize. While specific rules and formats vary between different lottery games, the basic premise remains the same. Lotteries generate revenue by selling more lottery tickets than the worth of prizes given out. A portion of money raised through lottery ticket sales is then used to fund government programs or services.

So why were lotteries created in the first place? There are a few key reasons behind the origins of lotteries globally:

Raising Revenue

One of the primary reasons lotteries were first established was to raise money for governments and states. Sources of public revenue were more limited centuries ago, so early forms of lotteries provided an innovative way to bring in funds. Revenue generated from lotteries was used for all kinds of public services – anything from town fortifications to libraries and universities. As an early precedent, the first known European lotteries were held during the Roman Empire. These ‘drawing of wood’ lotteries collected revenue for municipal projects.

Over time, governments recognized the fund generating potential of lotteries through voluntary taxable entertainment. Lotteries essentially allowed the public to contribute money willingly through purchasing tickets, as opposed to flat out obligatory taxation. Especially prior to the introduction of income tax systems, lotteries became an important source of income for governments globally.

Financing Major Projects

Beyond general public revenue, lotteries have specifically helped finance major projects over the years. One of the first recorded lotteries with prize money took place in 1466 in Bruges, Flanders to fund town fortifications and walls. In the 16th century, the English state lottery was introduced by King Henry VIII to raise money for harbor fortifications.

Perhaps the most famous example is the Louisiana Lottery. This lottery essentially provided funding for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when the U.S. acquired over 500 million acres of land from France. Further examples include lotteries organized to fund the Virginia Company settlement of Jamestown in 1612, and lotteries used to financially support the construction of esteemed universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Supporting Public Services

Lottery revenue has historically supported all kinds of public services – infrastructure, education, health services, disaster relief and more. The Great Wall Lottery in China helped fund construction of the Great Wall during the Ming dynasty. In 1567, England’s Queen Elizabeth I created a lottery to raise money to repair harbors and for other public works projects.

Early American lotteries provided revenue for volunteer fire departments, libraries, orphanages, jails and other local infrastructure. The New Hampshire Medical Society held a lottery in 1794 to raise $10,000 for medical supplies. Lotteries also funded soldiers during times of war – such as the Stamp Act Congress Lottery that supported Colonial troops during the French and Indian War.

Offering Prizes and Hope

While raising money has been the primary goal, lotteries have also provided excitement, entertainment and hope of winning valuable prizes. In the 17th century, affluent members of society would organize lotteries that awarded lavish prizes like tapestries, silverware and jewels to winners. Lotteries were used for entertainment purposes to celebrate events or holidays. The English State Lottery even had to be authorized through Acts of Parliament annually, as it was so popular and provided ample entertainment for all classes.

The prospect of striking it rich has always fueled lottery ticket sales. While statistically very rare, stories of ordinary people winning fortune through lotteries reinforced this hope through the ages. Lotteries allowed even the poorest members of society to inexpensively partake in the otherwise unattainable dream of instantly becoming rich.

Early Forms of Lotteries

References to lotteries have been found in texts dating back thousands of years from Ancient China, Greece, Rome and Egypt. While specific formats varied, the basic concept of lottery-style gambling through the drawing of lots existed across ancient civilizations.

Chinese Keno Lotteries

China’s keno-style lottery games date back over 3,000 years. ‘Keno’ style games had players select a set of numbers and then draw numbers at random to determine winners. Funds from these lotteries were used to help finance major construction projects like the Great Wall of China. Other forms of lotteries and gambling games financially supported government works during dynastic periods in China.

Ancient Greek Lotteries

Lotteries also existed in Ancient Greece – pacifically the Greek Empires of Athens and Corinth. Texts refer to kleros as a system to auction property, settle legal disputes and distribute resources by lot. Roman Emperor Augustus famously used a lottery to award property and prizes at banquets.

Roman Lotteries

The Roman Empire saw prolific forms of lotteries, with profits financing public works projects – including repairs of City infrastructure like aqueducts after floods. Roman emperors are known to have distributed lottery tickets to guests at parties as entertainment and to disburse prizes.

Egyptian Lotteries

Archaeological evidence indicates the existence of lotteries in Ancient Egypt. Dice-like objects and scratch cards for lottery-style betting have been uncovered in Egyptian excavation sites from the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE. This suggests lotteries existed in some form in Ancient Egypt, likely for gambling and entertainment.

The Rise of European Lotteries

While various lottery-style games of chance had existed across ancient civilizations, the 1400s saw the rise of organized lotteries in Europe. As literacy and technology spread during the Renaissance period, lotteries gained broad popularity across European empires and kingdoms. Italy is credited with establishing the model for modern lottery games in the 15th century, which was then adopted across Europe over the following centuries.

Italian Lotto

The oldest continually running lottery today is the Italian Lotto, first established in Florence, Italy in 1530. This monthly drawing inspired similar lottery games played across Europe, and introduced innovations like numbered tickets and prize categories. The Italian Lotto remains popular today, contributing significant funds to the government. Players are required to pick numbers from 1-90.

Genoese Lottery

The first modern lottery awarding prizes based on unknown outcomes was organized by the bourgeoisie of Genoa, Italy in the 1400s. It raised funds to financially support the Republic of Genoa’s bid for control of the Aegean island of Chios. Ticket holders won shares of prizes – including paintings, tapestries, cash and silver dinnerware.

Spanish Lotteries – “El Gordo”

In 1763, Spain created the world’s largest lottery game, La Lotería Primitiva. Also known as El Gordo (Spanish for “the fat one”), it continues today awarding billions in prizes before Christmas each year. El Gordo offers huge jackpots, including its first place prize shared by holders of tickets with matching numbers. Spaniards spend an estimated $3 billion on El Gordo tickets annually.

French Lotteries

France’s national lottery Française des Jeux was first established in 1933. France also saw one of the first instances of lottery fraud with the French Connection Scandal in 1836. It involved smuggling winning French lottery tickets into the U.S. through telegraph communication, to claims prizes before officials were aware.

English Lotteries

England’s royal lotteries first began under Queen Elizabeth I in 1566 to raise funds for harbor fortifications. The English State Lottery became a major source of revenue for the kingdom through the 1700s. Parliament had to approve the lottery annually, with protests eventually leading to its abolishment. Private English lotteries were also popular, awarding lavish prizes to wealthy citizens.

Lottery History & Origins in the Americas

Lotteries spread from Europe to colonies in North America and throughout the New World starting in the 1600s. They quickly became an important source of early colonial funding to support overseas settlements and infrastructure.

Early American Lotteries

Lotteries financed almost every original North American colony during British settlement. The Virginia Company held the first recorded lottery in the colonies in 1612, offering prizes of land and silver to finance the Jamestown settlement. By the American Revolution in 1776, nearly all 13 original colonies had used lotteries to raise revenue. New Hampshire’s lottery in 1758 was organized to raise 29,000 pounds for the war with France.

Financing Public Works

In colonial America, lottery proceeds went towards the establishment of some of the first universities like Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and more. Lotteries funded churches, libraries and municipal infrastructure like roads, bridges and canals across the colonies. The Continental Congress also used a lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War.

Controversy and Prohibition

Despite funding public works, lotteries still saw opposition in Colonial America on moral grounds. Reformers petitioned against the harmful effects of gambling on society. By the 1840s, most states had banned lotteries or not renewed them. They remained prohibited in the U.S. until 1964 when New Hampshire reintroduced its state-run lottery.

Mexican National Lottery

Mexico launched the first National Lottery of independent Mexico in 1771 after a royal decree by the Spanish Crown. The lottery primarily financed Mexico City’s municipal water system. Today, Mexico’s national lottery Lotería Nacional is one of the oldest continuously running lotteries worldwide. Players choose a 6 number combination from 1-56.

Brazil’s Federal Lottery

In Brazil, lottery profits help fund social programs in education, sports, public safety and health. Brazil’s federal lottery held its first draw in 1970. The mega popular Mega-Sena lottery draws twice weekly, with Brazilians spending over $5 billion annually on lottery tickets.

Modern Lotteries

Today, lotteries exist in some form in over 100 countries worldwide. While rules and specific games vary, the basic premise remains to turn profits from ticket sales to benefit government budgets and public causes.

State-Run Lotteries

Most major countries offer state-run lottery games today as an important revenue source. Lottery income usually helps support social welfare programs, infrastructure, education, sports and the arts. Certain causes also receive direct proceeds through dedicated lottery games in some jurisdictions. Many U.S. states earmark lottery profits for education funds.

National Lotteries

Most nations have some form of a central national lottery. Prominent examples include the UK National Lottery; Lotería Nacional in Spain; Lotto 6/49 and Lotto Max in Canada; Lotto in Australia; Lotto India; and of course state lotteries across the U.S. These lotteries rake in billions for governments and have created countless millionaires.

Privatized Lotteries

While historically run by states, some jurisdictions now privatize lottery operations. But governments still benefit from tax revenue on profits and income generated. Notable private lottery operators include Lottomatica in Italy, Camelot Group in the UK, and Scientific Games across North America.

Online Lotteries

The digital era has brought lotteries into the 21st century through online ticket sales and draws. Many major national and state lotteries now allow players to conveniently purchase lottery tickets online. Some jurisdictions restrict online sales to residents who are physically located within the state at the time of purchase.

Lottery Jackpots

Lottery jackpots continue to reach astonishing record highs. Powerball set the world record for the biggest jackpot ever at $1.586 billion in January 2016. Mega Millions previously held the record when three winners split $656 million in March 2012. A South Carolina woman won $1.537 billion playing Mega Millions in 2018 – the largest individual jackpot to date.

Key Milestones in Lottery History

To summarize, here are some of the major milestones and events that have shaped the history and evolution of lotteries globally:

Major Historical Lottery Milestones

  • 100 BCE – Ancient keno-style lottery games played in China to fund state works
  • 100 BCE – Lottery games referenced in texts from Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt
  • 1466 – First recorded public lottery prizes in Bruges, Flanders
  • 1530 – The Italian Lotto first established in Florence, introducing modern lottery innovations
  • 1567 – Queen Elizabeth I approves England’s first national lottery to fund harbors
  • 1763 – Spain launches El Gordo, now the world’s biggest lottery game
  • 1776 – Nearly all 13 original U.S. colonies used lotteries to raise revenue
  • 1870 – Brazil holds its first national public lottery draw
  • 1964 – New Hampshire becomes first U.S. state to revive its lottery post-ban
  • 1970 – Brazil launches the weekly Mega-Sena lottery
  • 2012 – Mega Millions jackpot hits record $656 million
  • 2016 – Powerball jackpot reaches world record $1.586 billion

This summation highlights the deep roots and staying power of lotteries across human civilizations. While formats and rules have evolved, the essential allure of striking it rich while funding public needs endures worldwide.


In conclusion, lotteries originated centuries ago as an innovative way for governments to raise public revenue. They provided a voluntary form of taxable entertainment that generated income from ticket sales to support various public works and services. Lotteries also offered the general public the dream of instantly winning huge fortunes or valuable prizes.

Key factors that gave rise to early lotteries globally include:

  • The need for states to fund public projects, particularly major infrastructure undertakings
  • Wars and conflicts that required raising government revenue
  • A lack of organized taxation systems prior to the 19th century
  • The entertainment value and excitement of gambling for prizes or money

Over the centuries, lotteries have funded crucial projects and institutions across Europe, North America and around the world. They significantly supported American colonies, financing schools, libraries, churches and infrastructure. While banned for periods due to moral opposition, lotteries made an official comeback starting in the 1960s. Today state-run lottery games help generate billions in annual revenue for governments and causes worldwide.

After enduring for millennia, lottery games continue evolving across formats and mediums. But their universal appeal of potentially hitting a jackpot persists across cultures. Lotteries have become an enduring staple that provide entertainment, hope and needed funding by appealing to humanity’s collective fascination with games of chance.