The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which prizes are allocated by chance. The prizes can be monetary or non-monetary. Prizes are normally determined by drawing numbers. Lotteries are usually operated by governments or private corporations. State governments operate the majority of lotteries in the United States. Lottery revenues are often earmarked for specific purposes such as education. However, critics argue that earmarking is misleading. The money “saved” by a lottery is simply the amount of the appropriation that would have been otherwise required for that purpose in the general fund. This reduces the amount of appropriation available for other programs.

Many people play the lottery because of the prospect of winning a big jackpot. Super-sized jackpots increase ticket sales and get lots of free publicity on newscasts and on the Internet. But the odds of winning are still very small.

In the past, lottery games tended to be little more than traditional raffles. Participants bought tickets for future drawings, which were typically weeks or months away. But innovations in the 1970s made lottery games more interactive. Instant lotteries, such as scratch-off tickets, offered smaller prizes but had much higher odds of winning.

The modern lotteries that Americans spend billions on each year have a long and rocky history. Their emergence as a popular activity began in the Low Countries in the 15th century, where towns used them to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. They played an important role in the colonial era, when Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to finance Philadelphia’s militia and John Hancock ran a lottery to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall. George Washington even sponsored a lottery to build a road across a Virginia mountain pass, but it failed to generate enough revenue.