History of the Lottery | Who Invented the Lottery?
It’s hard to imagine a time without our favourite lotto games, but surely the lottery had to start somewhere. In fact, as you’ll see in this article, lotto players today are participating in one of the most popular pastimes ever invented.
Here, we lay out a brief history of the lottery, who invented the lottery, and why lottery games today are as amazing as they are.
The First Lotteries: Ancient China and the Roman Empire
The oldest lottery ever discovered originated in ancient China at least 2,000 years ago. Back then, the lottery was used to finance big government projects, including building the Great Wall of China. This ancient lottery was a form of keno called baige piao or pai-ko p’iao. Normally, in keno games, players pick several numbers from a card of 80 numbers. The original game from China had players pick from 80 Chinese characters printed on the keno slip. This game is still played today across China.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the oldest lottery draws were held in the Roman Empire. During the ancient festival of Saturnalia, a winter holiday celebrating the god Saturn, wealthy Romans would hold dinner parties and give each guest a lottery ticket. All ticket holders would receive some sort of surprise gift, such as fancy utensils or plates. The first lottery that actually sold tickets was set up by Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. Winners of the lottery would receive one of several prizes, and the Emperor used the funds collected to repair the city of Rome.
The First Cash Lotteries: Medieval Europe
According to historians, the first lotteries that sold tickets for cash prizes were run in the 1400s by the Low Countries, which included the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Towns in this region sold lotto tickets to raise funds to help poor residents, to build and maintain the town and its fortifications, and to fund public goods.
In 1445, the town of L’Ecluse, now called Sluis, held a lottery with 4,304 tickets and a cash prize of 1,737 florins. That’s worth about US$380,000 today—certainly nothing to sneeze at! By the 1600s, lotteries were a common occurrence in the Netherlands and were very popular with locals.
An Italian cash lottery in Milan was also used to finance the war against the Republic of Venice in 1449. Meanwhile, the first true lotto was born in Genoa. The game involved betting on which 5 of 90 Great Council member candidates would be nominated for merit every six months. Eventually, people wanted to play the lotto more than twice a year, so they replaced the candidate names with numbers—thus creating the modern lotto game.
Modern Lottery Games in Europe
“Modern” lotteries started to spread across Europe in the mid-1500s and eventually made their way to America thanks to European immigrants.
King Francis I launched the Loterie Royale in 1539 in France to fund several wars. Unfortunately, the tickets were too expensive and the wealthy people of France didn’t want any part of it—which caused the lottery to go mostly underground for 200 years. The first major lottery draw in Germany was held in Hamburg in 1614, while Austrian Empress Maria Theresa launched a local lottery in 1751.
In Spain, the first local lottery game was launched in 1763, and the famous Spanish Christmas Lottery was established in 1812. Playing the lottery is a major cultural tradition in Spain—and the Christmas draw is still going strong today.
Meanwhile, in England, Queen Elizabeth I started selling tickets to the first cash lottery in the country in 1566, with the draw being held in 1569. (Imagine the suspense of holding on to your lotto ticket for three years!) Every ticket holder got a prize based on how much money was raised. The English state lottery was held for more than 250 years, with the final draw in 1826.
At the same time, private lotteries were held by various organizations to raise money for their own purposes. One famous example was a lottery that raised funds for The Virginia Company of London, which used the money to build its new settlement in America.
The First Lotteries in the United States
In colonial America, lotteries were an important way to raise funds to support businesses and build everything from libraries to colleges, bridges, roads, and more. Between 1744 and 1776, over 200 lotteries were approved to run in the New World. Some colonies ran lotteries to collect money to fight against everyone from Native Americans to the French and Canadians.
Two interesting lotteries included Benjamin Franklin’s draws, which raised funds to purchase cannons to defend Philadelphia. The prizes for these draws were paid out in “Pieces of Eight,” the famous Spanish silver coins. George Washington also tried to run a lottery, and while the draw itself didn’t take off, the lottery tickets with Washington’s signature on them are now rare collector’s items worth about $15,000 each.
Lotteries Today Have the Biggest Prizes in History
It’s clear that popular lotteries today are built on a long tradition of lotto games and prize draws going back over 2,000 years. While starting a lottery is certainly not easy, governmental regulation has improved over time to allow more games to exist, and prizes have grown significantly even in recent years.
In Europe, nearly every country has its own unique lottery games, and many participate in the huge EuroMillions and Eurojackpot games. In 2006, EuroMillions hit its biggest jackpot ever of €183.5 million. Meanwhile, the UK’s National Lottery, established in 1994, had a top prize of £42 million in 1996.
For now, the US Powerball and Mega Millions games have built up the biggest prizes in history. In 2016, the Powerball jackpot inflated to an unbelievable $1.58 billion—and it was won and split among three separate lucky players. In 2018, a Mega Millions draw worth a whopping $1.53 billion was won by one incredibly fortunate anonymous player in South Carolina.
If you’re a lottery enthusiast, you’ll be happy to know you’re living in the best lottery climate in history. Around the world, countries have recognized the lottery’s ability to raise money for good causes, and governments are increasingly allowing the launch of new and bigger games—even in notoriously lotto-averse nations, like India. With the growth of online lottery sites, it’s also easier than ever to play the best games with the biggest prizes internationally. There’s never been a better time to take a chance on luck—and we can’t wait to see how lotteries continue to evolve in the coming years.