A Brief History of Lotteries

From the Good Book to the Big Game and $1.5 Billion: The Pathway to the Modern American Lottery

Date:Nov. 8, 2019

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The modern lottery, with its tantalizing, creatively themed scratch-offs and eye-popping jackpots, is descended from the age-old practice of the drawing of lots; indeed, the word’s etymology places its origins in the Old English ‘hlot’ and the Middle Dutch ‘lot’ and ‘loterie.’ Evidence of similar odds-based activities can be traced as far back to Egyptian gaming artifacts dated around 3500 BC, and casting lots is even referenced (quite often) in the Bible.


These ancient drawings of lots and games of chance likely looked much different than the numbered tickets, scratch-offs, and instant wins (with accompanying cash prizes) of modern state lotteries. Like so many other practices, they’ve evolved fluidly over time, built on knowledge of past practices. However, there are nonetheless many milestones and landmarks along the way in examining the history of the modern lottery.




The Legend of the Lottery

To truly (and accurately) trace the origins of the lottery as we know it, we would begin in the middle ages. However, tales of lotteries permeate throughout history, and while their veracity may be in dispute, their legend has become ingrained in lottery’s history.



~1500s BC

The Book of Joshua (Joshua 18:10) recounts Moses drawing lots to distribute territory to the twelve tribes of Israel.1 Lots are drawn several more times in Biblical lore; that the randomness traditionally inferenced in this practice was influenced by divine will, but nonetheless, these written accounts of lot-casting remain embedded in mankind’s most widely read tome.



205-187 BC

According to legend, keno slips were sold by either the Qin Dynasty or the Han Dynasty to finance sections of the Great Wall of China. Like so much else with the Great Wall, it’s difficult to tell whether the misinformation outweighs the verifiable claims.2



27 BC – 68 AD

Drawings or other methods of random selection may have been used by ancient Romans distributing gifts during Saturnalia feasts in the age of Nero and Augustus. Though often cited as the origins of lottery, these lavish displays appear to be more akin to the traditional Christmas gift-giving they begat.




The Modern Lottery

Written records of lotteries begin to crop up during the Fifteenth Century, as merchants both utilized the game for their own purposes and spread the concept from city to city.


1420 – The First Public Lottery in L’Ecluse

Or was it…

1449 – The First Lottery in Milan

But probably…

February 24, 1466 – The First Recorded Lottery with Prize Money in Bruges

In the 1440s, merchants began organizing lotteries to fund government projects. The money from these lotteries often went to fortifications or other municipal projects, including programs providing assistance to impoverished citizens, and the prizes were often parcels of merchants’ goods rather than gold or currency. Some historians argue that a French town, L’Ecluse, held the first public lottery, raising funds for fortifications.3 Others hold that the first recorded tickets-and-cash-prize lottery was organized in Bruges, a town in modern-day Belgium4 – interestingly, the event widely acknowledged to be the first of the recorded Bruges lotteries was organized by the widow of renowned Renaissance painter Jan van Eyck.5


Though actual records may be in dispute, historians largely agree that modern-day lotteries grew to prominence in Europe’s Low Countries region (which would eventually become the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg), ultimately spreading throughout the continent from these merchant hubs.


Italy’s recorded history with lotteries, meanwhile, may have begun as early as 1449 in Milan, as government fundraising for the Golden Ambrosia Republic. More concrete evidence surfaces in 1522 in senator Marin Sanudo’s account of Venice’s lottery6, in which he recounts “A new method of commerce” that offered as prizes “carpets and other things” as well as “money prizes, 200 ducats, and a piece of cloth of gold.”7 Carpet jackpots, it seems, are no longer in vogue.



March 12, 1612 – A Fund-Raising Lottery for the Jamestown Settlement is Authorized


The lottery spread to England by the mid- to late-1500's8, and in 1612 King James I of England granted the Virginia Company of London authorization to hold a lottery raising money for the recently established colony in the new world. Although complete records are unknown, it is estimated that the company raised £29,0009 (a stately sum sufficient to send hundreds of settlers and vast quantities of supplies across the broad Atlantic) to help finance Jamestown, Virginia. Though it was eventually abandoned in the 1750s, the settlement, home to John Smith and John Rolfe, has long since been immortalized in U.S. history.



1812 – The First Spanish Christmas Lottery is Organized


Held every year since 1812, the Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad or Lotería de Navidad, is currently the biggest lottery in the world, with a total payout of more than €2 billion (~$2.25 billion) via a range of cash prizes every December 22nd.


Nicknamed “El Gordo” (in reference to its massive grand prize), the lottery was first organized by the Spanish Public Administration to raise money for the defense of Cádiz against Napoleon’s forces10 and managed to survive the Spanish Civil War to run continuously ever since, making it the second-longest-running lottery worldwide, behind only the Dutch Staatsloterij (established in 1726).


The Lotería de Navidad is a public and community event – it is estimated that 75 percent of adult Spaniards participate in the lottery. Tickets go for around €200, but shares of tickets can be purchased, making it common for groups to split stakes in a single entry. Beyond family, friend and work pools, clubs and bars sometimes break the tickets (and potential winnings) down amongst patrons, and the drawing is broadcast live on national television. Even if ticket pools are unplanned, ticket shares tend to be distributed geographically, often leading to the grand prize being divided largely within a single town or city. ¡Feliz Navidad y buena suerte!



1964 – New Hampshire Revives State Lotteries


Despite their significance in funding public works and private ventures in colonial and revolutionary America, lotteries fell into disfavor due to moral objections, corruption, and an unseemly organized crime element, and were effectively banned by the federal government in 1895.11


State lotteries would not return until 1964, when New Hampshire established the New Hampshire Sweepstakes. Proposed five times over a decade by State Representative Larry Pickett as a means to fund the state’s education system, the lottery bill finally passed in 1963, followed by a special ballot vote, in which citizens overwhelmingly voted in favor of the sweepstakes (now called the New Hampshire Lottery). These first lotteries were actually horse races, with entrants matching numbers with the winning horses rather than drawn lots – but they would become the basis for the lottery as we in America know it today.12


To date, the New Hampshire Lottery has contributed $2 billion to the state’s education budget.
The success of New Hampshire’s lottery spurred New York and New Jersey to follow suit;
by 1975, 13 states had established lotteries.13



1985 – The First Multi-State Lottery


Twenty-one years after lottery’s return to the U.S., Maine and Vermont join New Hampshire to offer the first multi-state lottery. Dubbed Tri-State Megabucks (and still in operation today), this cooperative venture would pave the way for huge nationwide jackpots, as states coordinated to share prize pools.


Two years later, six states joined forces to form Lotto*America, which was renamed Powerball in 1992. The Big Game, later to become Mega Millions, would debut in 1996 as another multi-state lottery.14 Today, 44 U.S. states offer Powerball and Mega Millions, as do the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, while Puerto Rico also offers Powerball.



February 8, 2010 – George Washington’s 1768 Mountain Road Lottery Ticket Authenticated on Pawn Stars


In Season 2, Episode 8 of the hit History Channel show, a patron brought a near-mint condition Mountain Road Lottery Ticket to the famed Las Vegas pawn shop.15 Though the patron ultimately decided not to sell, an expert confirmed that the ticket, bearing Washington’s signature, was legitimate.


Washington’s Mountain Road Lottery was designed to raise funds for a warm springs resort in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia, as well as the mountain road leading to the resort. Washington was far from the only founding father to organize lotteries; Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson, among others, sponsored their own lotteries for public or personal projects during the country’s fledgling days.


The Mountain Road Lottery ultimately failed, possibly due to the glut of fund-raising lotteries at the time, and only 25 of the tickets, each bearing Washington’s signature, are thought to exist. Depending on their condition, these tickets can fetch between $5,000 to $20,000 on the open market.16, 17, 18


Fortunately for spa-goers, the historic Omni Homestead Resort and Hotel now sits on Washington’s proposed site, one of many hot springs resorts in appropriately-christened Bath County, Virginia.




Notable Projects Funded in Part by Lotteries

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The Jamestown Settlement

The Rialto Bridge19
(Venice, Italy)

Princeton, Penn, Harvard, Columbia, Yale,
and many other pre-Revolutionary American Colleges

Faneuil Hall Renovations 
(Boston, MA, USA)

HOPE Scholarship 
(Georgia, USA)

The Gier aqueduct and other French heritage sites

Forces in Mind Trust 





January 13, 2016 – Three Tickets Match for Powerball’s $1.586 Billion Jackpot


The pathway to the largest jackpot in history began in October 2015, when the Powerball format was changed to increase the white-ball pool and decrease the Powerball pool, lengthening the jackpot odds and increasing the likelihood of larger grand prizes. Shortly thereafter, the jackpot rolled over for the twentieth consecutive time, resulting in a prize of over $1.5 billion, more than doubling the previous Powerball record.


Powerball fever took root in the news cycle as the jackpot neared the $1 billion milestone, and though the prize promised to reach $2 billion if no winners were selected, the January 13, 2016, drawing resulted in three winning tickets. The winners each chose between approximately $533 million in annuity payments or a $327.8 million lump-sum payout for the split pot.


Two and a half years later, Mega Millions threatened the record, climbing to an estimated $1.537 billion before a single ticket matched the drawing on October 23, 2018. The winner, who chose to remain anonymous, did not come forward to claim the prize until March 4, 2019, just under two months shy of the deadline. Through an attorney, the winner chose the lump sum cash payout of $878 million, which remains the largest single payout in lottery history.



March 12, 2019 – InComm Acquires Linq3


With the acquisition of Linq3, a digital lottery innovator, InComm positioned itself as the gateway connecting state lotteries with consumers in-lane at retail. InComm’s lottery solutions modernize lottery gameplay, providing opportunities for digital and online play, expanded reach at retail, and new lottery procucts.


With easier purchasing and activation through any in-store point-of-sale, convenient options for digital play and in-lane redemptions, and mobile payment integration for traditional and new games, InComm is ushering in the next era of lottery play. These innovative lottery industry solutions include:

InComm – Graphic of a credit card shape with a rainbow and pot of gold. Lottery Card™ – A branded lottery gift card that can be linked to a mobile account for on-demand play;

InComm – Graphic of a tilted lottery scratch-off ticket and speed lines. QuickTicket™ – Combining the thrill of instant games with the excitement of jackpot draws, players scratch to reveal their numbers, which are entered into the next available Mega Millions or Powerball drawing immediately after purchase;

InComm – Graphic of a mobile phone, text message bubble and lightening bolt. Digital Instant – Mobile or pre-loaded tickets for traditional games that can be activated on a mobile device after purchase;

InComm – Graphic of a mobile phone with a dollar symbol surrounded by two arrows. Online Top-Ups – Allow players to add funds to an online lottery account for convenient play; and

InComm – Graphic of a point-of-sale system surrounded by dollar signs and stars. Point-of-Sale Prize Redemption – Lotteries can offer prepaid cards or funds loaded to digital store accounts or lottery accounts as options for winners’ payouts.





There’s no doubt that the lottery industry will continue to evolve. InComm’s lottery initiatives are just beginning to test its capabilities in the industry, and InComm is always looking forward. We recently announced a patent pledge that will allow qualifying entities free use of certain patents in connection with the lottery industry, fostering further innovations in lottery gameplay and customer experience. This progress will go hand-in-hand with adaptations and opportunities in the retail landscape, with InComm’s reach and experience guiding the way.


If you’re making bets on lottery’s future, the odds sure look good.



Are you a state lottery interested in expanding your reach or a retailer looking to add lottery products and capabilities? Contact us today.


1 King James Version. Bible Gateway, https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/. Accessed 12 July 2019.


2 Waldron, Arthur N. “The Problem of the Great Wall of China.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, Dec. 1983, pp. 643-663.

3 Fact Research Inc. (1974). Gambling in Perspective: A Review of the Written History of Gambling and an Assessment of its Effect on Modern American Society. Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling. Washington, DC.


4 Wykes, Alan. The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964.


5 Ashton, John. A History of English Lotteries: Now For the First Time Written. The Leadenhall Press, Ltd: London, 1893.


6 Welch, Evelyn. Lotteries in Early Modern Italy. Past & Present, vol. 199, no. 1, 2008, pp. 71-111.


7 Seville, Adrian. “The Italian Roots of the Lottery.” History Today, vol. 49, no. 3, March 1999, https://www.historytoday.com/archive/italian-roots-lottery. Accessed 12 July 2019.


8 Ashton, John. A History of English Lotteries: Now For the First Time Written. The Leadenhall Press, Ltd: London, 1893.


9 Johnson, Robert C. “The Lotteries of the Virginia Company, 1612-1621.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 74, no. 3, 1966, pp. 259-292.


10 Bengoa, Aitor. “The Origin of Spain’s Christmas Lottery: Buying Bullets to Fight Napoleon.” Translated by Alyssa McMurtry. El País [Madrid] 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 28 June 2019.


11 National Gambling Impact Study Commission. (1999). Lotteries. Washington, DC.


12 “About Us.” New Hampshire Lottery, NH Lottery Commission, www.nhlottery.com/About-Us.


13 “About Us.” New Hampshire Lottery, NH Lottery Commission, www.nhlottery.com/About-Us.


14 “History of North American Lotteries.” North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, www.naspl.org/historyofthelottery.


15 “Chopper Gamble.” Pawn Stars. History. A&E Networks. 8 Feb. 2010. Television.


16 Shelley, Ron. The Lottery Encyclopedia. Byron Pub. Services, 1989.


17 Shelley, Ron. “Mountain Road Lottery: Setting the Record Straight.” Blog. Mountain Road Lottery: Setting the Record Straight. Blogspot.com, July 2009. 2019.


18 “Chopper Gamble.” Pawn Stars. History. A&E Networks. 8 Feb. 2010. Television.


19 Muchembled, Robert. “The Wheel of Fortune: Lotteries and Modernism in Fifteenth to Seventeenth Century Europe.” Lotteries in Europe: Five Centuries of History. Edited by B. Bernard, Belgian National Lottery: Brussels, 1995, pp. 19-52.


20 Nordell, Philip G. “Lotteries in Princeton’s History.” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 15, no. 1., 1953, pp. 16-37.