The History of the Lottery


The lottery generates billions of dollars in revenue annually, and its players spend large amounts of money. Many people who play the lottery do so out of a sense of optimism, believing that winning the jackpot will change their lives for the better. Others have a more somber view, realizing that the odds are long and that they will likely never win.

Regardless of the reason, there is no denying that lotteries are popular. Since New Hampshire started the modern era of state-sponsored lotteries in 1964, many states have followed suit. They begin with a legislative monopoly; create a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery; start operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, as they gain popularity, continue to increase game complexity and expand marketing efforts.

State-sponsored lotteries are the latest example of a government activity that is not prone to Occam’s razor, the 14th-century principle that the simplest solution is usually the correct one. This is especially true in states that use their lottery revenues to fund specific programs.

Although the casting of lots for making decisions and determining fates has a long record in human history—including several examples in the Bible—the first recorded public lottery was held during the reign of Augustus Caesar to raise funds for municipal repairs in Rome. Lotteries also played a significant role in colonial America, providing money for roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, and bridges, as well as private enterprises. Benjamin Franklin, for example, used a lottery to finance the purchase of cannons for Philadelphia during the American Revolution.