The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling that involves paying a small sum of money to participate in a random drawing for a prize, most often large cash prizes. It is often organized so that a percentage of the profits are donated to good causes. People who play the lottery usually have irrational beliefs about how to win, including ideas like buying tickets in lucky stores at certain times or using lucky numbers, but they also know that the odds of winning are long.

The earliest recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries during the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. Lotteries were also used in colonial America to finance public projects, such as paving streets and constructing wharves, and to sponsor institutions of higher learning, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and King’s College (now Columbia). Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

State lotteries typically operate by establishing a legal monopoly for themselves; creating an independent agency or public corporation to run the operation; beginning with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, in response to a steady stream of pressure to increase revenues, introducing new forms of gambling, such as keno or video poker. The result is a vicious cycle, in which state government spends more and more, while voters see the lottery as a way to get tax money for free.