The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a gambling game that raises money for public works by giving the participants the opportunity to win prizes. The prizes are usually in the form of cash, but they can also be goods or services. In the United States, lotteries are regulated by state law and the prize money is generally limited to a specific amount. In other countries, lotteries are not regulated and the prizes may be much larger.

The concept of the lottery is ancient; a biblical account of Moses dividing the land among the Israelites by lot dates back a thousand years, and the casting of lots was used for everything from distributing slaves in Rome (Nero loved a good lottery) to deciding who got Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion. The first European lotteries were probably organized as a type of party entertainment during Roman Saturnalian celebrations, where tickets were distributed and winners selected at random. Some of these early lotteries were aimed at raising funds for a variety of public works, while others raised money exclusively for charitable purposes.

When lottery profits rose, the public began clamoring for more. New Hampshire established its first state-run lottery in 1964, and more than a dozen other states followed suit within a decade. The evolution of state lotteries is a classic example of policymaking in a fragmented, incremental manner. Authority over the lottery is divided between several different branches of government, and each branch makes its decisions independently, with little or no oversight of other departments. As a result, most lotteries begin operations with only modest numbers of relatively simple games and then expand in response to increasing pressure for revenues.