The History of the Lottery

When someone wins the lottery, they have a rare chance to change their lives forever. But what does that mean for the rest of us? It’s a question we can answer if we look back at the history of lotteries.

Lotteries have long been a way for states to raise money without much effort. In the immediate post-World War II period, for example, they could fund services like education and health care without having to increase taxes on everyone in the state. But as this arrangement wore down in the 1960s, it became clear that state governments would have to start asking people for more money — and they needed a new source of revenue to do it. That’s when lottery began to be used in the United States.

In Europe, the first lotteries that offered prizes in the form of money were held in the Low Countries during the 15th century as towns sought to raise funds to fortify their defenses or help the poor. The word “lottery” itself may come from Middle Dutch loterie, itself a calque on the Old French phrase loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots.”

While some modern lotteries are run by states or other public entities, most are privately organized. The practice was brought to America by British colonists, and it has since helped build Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union, Brown and other institutions. Privately organized lotteries can be used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property or works are given away through a random procedure, and even to select members of juries. By definition, however, any lottery in which payment of a consideration is required for a chance to win a prize falls into the gambling category.

The earliest recorded European lotteries to award money prizes were in the 15th century in Burgundy and Flanders as towns attempted to raise funds for town fortifications or to help the poor. Francis I of France permitted lotteries for profit in several cities, and the first public lotteries in England were established after the French Revolution.

Most people know that they’re not likely to win the big jackpots advertised on the sides of highways, but they keep playing. They’re driven by a simple human impulse to gamble and perhaps by a belief that the lottery is a meritocratic enterprise in which we all have a fair shot at getting rich.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a lucky number, and no single set of numbers is any more likely to be drawn than another. The numbers are chosen randomly, and anyone who buys a ticket has a one-in-a-million chance of winning. That’s why the jackpots are so huge, and why they attract such a diverse audience. But if we’re smart, we should take advantage of this information to stop buying lottery tickets. Instead, we should be using that money to put aside emergency savings or pay down credit card debt.