The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which players pay money to choose a group of numbers that will be randomly selected by machines. The winning numbers then determine the prize a player receives. The word “lottery” is derived from the Dutch noun lot, which means “fate.”

In the United States, state-sponsored lotteries are a popular way for citizens to play for big prizes. In fact, nearly sixty percent of adults buy a ticket at least once a year. In the decades since New Hampshire initiated the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, most American states have introduced their own versions. Originally, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with the public buying tickets for a drawing held at some future date—weeks or even months away. However, innovations introduced in the 1970s made lotteries much more lucrative. These changes, in turn, stimulated the rapid growth of state revenues—which then began to level off and eventually decline.

Advocates of state-run lotteries often argue that the proceeds are devoted to a benevolent cause—education, for example—and thus do not harm the fiscal health of a state government. This argument plays well in times of economic stress, when the public is fearful of tax increases or budget cuts. However, research has shown that the objective fiscal conditions of a state do not seem to have much impact on the state’s decision to introduce a lottery.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, state-sponsored lotteries played an important role in financing everything from public works to colleges. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons that could defend Philadelphia against the British. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton both supported them, and enslaved people purchased their freedom in Virginia lotteries.