Most of us think of lotteries—with their cornucopia of scratch tickets and nine-figure jackpots—as creations of modern America. After being severely curtailed by federal laws in the 1890s, New Hampshire launched the first state-run lottery in 1964. Since then, 42 other states have followed with most dedicating proceeds to education.
But lotteries themselves—some legal, some not—have been around for centuries, and have served as a popular method for raising funds for various causes and public works projects. Here is a list of things that likely would never have been built or accomplished without lotteries—the original crowdsourcing campaign.
1. THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
Around 200 BCE, the Western Han Dynasty used a lottery to pay for repairs to and expansion of the Great Wall. They created an early form of Keno called the “white pigeon game,” named for the birds that carried results from village to village.
2. THE ROADS TO ROME
All roads may lead to Rome, but not all roads could be maintained without spare change from the plebeians. After a civil war, Augustus instituted a lottery system to pay for repairs of the damaged infrastructure.
3. VOLTAIRE'S ACADEMIC CAREER
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In the 1700s, a French national lottery was created after the bond market collapsed. To encourage bond purchases, lottery tickets were awarded against a fractional percentage of their purchase. Voltaire and his friend, mathematician Charles Marie de la Condamine, discovered a mathematical flaw in the program that allowed them to purchase large quantities of tickets as holders of cheap bonds. Before the government caught on, Voltaire made enough on his winnings to live comfortably while pursuing philosophy.
4. THE JAMESTOWN COLONY
You could say that America itself is the offspring of a lottery: In order to finance the privately-held Virginia Company of London, King James I granted the company the authority to hold a lottery to raise funds for a grand exposition. Proceeds were used to create Jamestown, the first English colony in the New World.
5. THE IVY LEAGUE
How did these frontier colleges become the elite learning institutions of America? During the 1700s, many of them raised money for new buildings or dormitories through lotteries (some running them multiple times). Among the schools that relied on games of chance to build their campuses were Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, and the forerunners to Columbia and UPenn (whose motto remains “Laws without morals are useless”).
6. THE CONTINENTAL ARMY
Running out of money to continue its revolution against the Crown, the Continental Congress authorized a national lottery to raise cash for the fight. General Washington bought the first ticket. It fell far short of its $10 million goal, but individual colonies did well financing their militias with lotteries. Massachusetts earned $750,000 to provide bonuses for new volunteers.
7. FANEUIL HALL
Because the early states had trouble collecting taxes, and the bonds they issued were weak, many communities relied on legal gambling to pay for public needs. Proceeds paid for canals in Pennsylvania, aquifers in Kentucky, bridges in Connecticut, and fire-fighting equipment in St. Louis and Detroit. When Faneuil Hall, one of Boston’s most iconic landmarks, was leveled by fire in 1761, John Hancock helped organize a lottery for its reconstruction.
8. WASHINGTON, D.C.
Congress approved a $100,000 jackpot in the 1823 Grand National Lottery, profits of which were to be put toward restoring and expanding Washington, D.C. After the winners were drawn, the broker contracted to conduct the lottery absconded with all of the proceeds—never to be seen again. The grand prize winner sued and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had to pay up.
9. THE IRISH REPUBLICAN ARMY
Popular around the world between the 1930s and 1960s, the Irish Sweepstake (yes, singular) purportedly raised money for Irish hospitals. Although illegal in dozens of countries, the cops didn’t crack down on ticket sellers, and the newsreels loved stories about instant millionaires. The Sweep was run by former IRA leaders, who smuggled the outlawed tickets and cash into Ireland in the same boats and planes that held rifles and ammunition for the Irish rebels. Ticket sellers also skimmed money from sales to give to the IRA; it’s estimated only 10 percent of the hundreds of millions of dollars in Sweep proceeds ever went to the hospitals.
BONUS: THE ESTATE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON
Deeply in debt at the end of his life, Jefferson petitioned the Virginia legislature to allow him to run a personal lottery with his effects and landholding as prizes. Jefferson had always been a supporter of lotteries, describing them as a tax “laid on the willing only.” But before he could run his lottery, Jefferson died and these items were instead sold at an estate sale.
For more on the first state-run lottery in the United States, pick up Kevin Flynn's American Sweepstakes: How One Small State Bucked the Church, the Feds, and the Mob to Usher in the Lottery Age.