The Ultimate Lottery History Guide

Lottery players all over the world are able to participate in the world’s biggest and best international lotto games, thanks to the internet. This is a long way away from the origin of the game, yet the basic concept which dates back to the earliest human civilisations is still relatively the same.

Origin of the word “lotto”

While the origin of the word "lotto" is believed to come from the Italian word "lotto", meaning destiny or fate, the Dutch also lay claim to the word with the exact same meaning. However, interesting enough, in Ancient Greek mythology Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades used sortation (also known as selection by lot, allotment, or demarchy) to determine who ruled over which domain. After playing the “game of chance”, Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld.

There are numerous articles about the history of lotteries and delving into all of them we established that these events were not always documented and the title holder of the very first lottery is still rather unclear.

While most articles claim that the first lottery took place during the Chinese dynasty, if one looks at the old testament of the Bible in the Book of Numbers, chapter 26 - Moses used a lottery to award land to the west of the River Jordan. Lotteries are also mentioned in Joshua, Leviticus, and Proverbs.

Lotteries in the Ancient World

Lottery games aren’t products of the modern age and although the US Powerball and Mega Millions are newer lotto games, the basic structure of the game has been around since ancient times.

100-44 BC:
The Ancient Romans played various forms of lottery. The Roman elite used to have draws after dinner parties with lavish prizes on offer. However, most of the best prizes ‘somehow’ found their way to the most influential members.

Augustus Caesar later introduced a lottery that all citizens of Rome were able to participate in. Prizes up for grabs comprised of treasures the army had brought back from their latest conquests. Proceeds from the lottery were used to fund the upkeep of the public streets and buildings.

100 BC:
Historians traced a version of a lottery back to the Ancient Chinese Western Han Dynasty.  The game played was known as the ‘white pigeon game.’ It’s basically a form of Keno and got its name due to the fact that birds were used to send the results of the draws out to far-flung villages.

Like just about all lotto games in Ancient times, the proceeds raised were used for defence and to build the Great Wall of China.

One of the first recorded European lotto games took place when the widow of the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, held a raffle to dispose of her husband’s remaining paintings.

In the coastal region of north-western Europe, including Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, towns would hold lotteries. The idea was to build fortifications, chapels, alms-houses, canals, port facilities and to help the poor.

Looking at Europe’s SuperEnalotto game, for example, we can see that not much has actually changed, other than the fact that there are much stricter regulations. Lotteries are still funding good causes with a portion of the funds raised from ticket sales going to education or other public works. The best part is and always will be the fact that we all still stand that chance to become instant millionaires with just one ticket.

In Genoa, Italy, six names were drawn for election to the Senate. Later these names were changed to numbers.


A number lottery with cash prizes was held in Florence, Italy.

Due to depleted funds, King Francis I of France authorized that a National lottery be created. He realised that people were spending money on foreign lotto games. 

Queen Elizabeth I established the first English state lottery in 1567. Prizes included cash, plates, and tapestries. While today we watch live drawings with celebrity presenters, back in 1569, Queen Elizabeth l picked out the winning lottery balls.

King James I of England created a lottery in London. The proceeds were used to aid the first British colony in America - Jamestown, Virginia.

The first big lotto game on German soil was created in 1614 called and the draw took place in Hamburg.

Lotteries were a part of British settlements in America from the very beginning in order to fund libraries, churches and colleges. In 1616, instant win tickets were sold and people could find out if they won a prize immediately after buying a ticket, similarly to scratchcard tickets as we know them today. 

The first American lotto game asked players to guess how many bibles were sold in New York.

During the 1700s there were quite a few Founding Fathers that played a role when it came to lotteries:

The first was Benjamin Franklin who used lotteries as a way in which to finance cannons for the Revolutionary War.
John Hancock also operated several lotteries and the funds were used to rebuild the historic Faneuil Hall in Boston.
George Washington was another Founding Father who operated a lottery. The proceeds raised were used to finance construction of the Mountain Road, which enabled the westward expansion from Virginia.

The Dutch Lottery is one of the oldest continuous lotteries. It was created in 1726. It is the oldest lottery that is still in operation. Over the years it was known by numerous names. In 1848 it was officially renamed as the Dutch StaatsLoterij or the Nederlandse Staatsloterij, which in English means the Dutch National Lottery. It can be closely matched to the famous El Gordo of Spain due to the fact that it’s a sweepstake type of lottery.

In 1753 a lottery draw was held in England for the establishment of the British Museum.

In France, Louis XV founded the Loterie Royale. Due to this new lotto game, all other lotteries were outlawed and the funds were used to reduce the State debts. The King thus created a monopoly, which became the forerunner of the Franceloto we know today.

In 1789 lotteries were used between the adoption of the American Constitution and before the introduction of local taxation. Before 1790, America had only three incorporated banks and lotteries were a standard sources for public and private financing.

1790 to the Civil War:
Funds created by lotteries created 50 colleges, 300 schools and 200 churches. Universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia were funded by lotteries.

1790 to 1860:
Between 1790 and 1860, 24 of the 33 states saw improvements to courthouses, jails, hospitals, orphanages, and libraries through lottery ticket sales. 


In Lower Canada, a law was enacted to formally ban all types of lottery games.

1820 - 1878:
From 1820 to 1878 corruption in privately operated lotto games was extremely prevalent. Quite a few lotteries awarded fewer prizes than advertised or awarded no prizes at all. Governments found themselves unable to regulate these lotteries and as a result began to consider prohibition.

New York passed the first constitutional prohibition of lotteries in the United States.

All states except Louisiana prohibited lotteries, either by statute or in their constitution.

Congress banned all lottery materials from the mail.

Congress banned all lottery materials from interstate commerce.

In 1912 "Totalizer" was legalized. This made betting at racetracks the only legal betting place in Canada.

The first lottery to start operation in the 20th century was Queensland State Lottery of Australia.

In 1930 the Irish Sweepstakes was launched. It was an instant success in the American and Canadian markets due to the fact that lotteries were still banned in those countries.


Nationale Loterij Van Belgieis the largest operator of lotteries in Belgium launched its first lotto game in 1934. It was known as Colonial Lottery and created to raise money for the ailing Belgian Congo.

The Belgium lottery got a new name, "National Lottery" in 1962.

The first legal lottery was created in New Hampshire. It was called a "Sweepstakes" and tied to horse races.

New York followed suit and became the second state to create a lottery.

In 1969 the Criminal code of Canada was amended and gambling was legalized. This gave the provinces the authority to operate lotteries and casinos. Licenses were allotted as long as proceeds went towards charitable or religious organizations.

New Jersey also created a lottery.

Lottery sales in America surpassed the $100 million mark for the first time.

Lottery tickets provided funding for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Sales for all lotteries in America surpassed $500 million.

The first scratchcard lottery tickets were sold in Massachusetts.

Federal law was amended to allow state lotteries to advertise on radio and TV.

The Delaware State Lottery began taking bets on the National Football League games. The NFL went to court but lost the legal battle to ban this type of betting. Lottery sales surpassed the $1 billion mark!

In 1985 the Tri-State Lotto linked the state lotteries of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

The first instant win game was created in Illinois.

The New York Lottery introduced Keno.

South Dakota became the first state in the U.S. to license and regulate video lottery games.

The Virginia Lottery awarded the first instant ticket vending machine contract.

The Big Game (Mega Millions as it is now known) began with Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan and Virginia as its initial members.

1998: was created. Shortly after,,, were added to the fold. It was one of the first online lottery websites created giving players from all over the world the opportunity to buy lottery tickets online no matter where in the world they were.

In the same year, the US Powerball lottery broke its own record for the largest jackpot in history when it rolled over to a massive $295.7 million.

The largest single-winning ticket is won amounting to $104 million. The winner is Maria Grasso from Boston, who won the incredible life-changing lotto prize on the Big Game (Mega Millions). 

Mexico, France and Japan create their own lotteries. The International Association of State Lotteries totals 63 member nations. 

On May 9, the largest lottery jackpot in history was shared by winners from Michigan and Illinois. Both winners of the Big Game opted to take the once-off lump sum cash payment of approximately $90 million. The jackpot was worth an incredible $363 million.

The EuroJackpot was launched on the 23rd of March 2012. In the same year, the Mega Millions rolled over and took the title of the biggest jackpot in history when it reached $656 million. Three ticket holders shared the top jackpot prize.

2016 saw the US Powerball smash all previous jackpot records when it rolled over to an unprecedented $1.586 billion!  Three tickets shared the top jackpot prize.

In 2017, Mavis Wanczyk used birthdays to choose her lottery numbers and she ended up winning $758.7 million on the US Powerball.

In 2018 the Mega Millions jackpot came incredibly close to beating the $1.586 billion US Powerball jackpot. It, however, rolled over just short of the record reaching $1.537 billion. It might not have taken the title of the biggest lottery jackpot in history but it did take the title of the biggest single ticket lottery prize.

2018 also saw significant rule changes to the UK Lottery. These changes created bigger fixed prizes for all prize tiers. A maximum rollover limit was also implemented, setting a maximum of five rollovers before a “Must Be Won” draw takes place. If this happens, the funds will filter down into the rest of the prize tiers if there’s no ‘Match 6’ winner/s.


The third-highest US Powerball jackpot took place on March 27, 2019, when the jackpot rolled over to an amazing $768.4 million. A single ticket purchased in Wisconsin took home the top jackpot prize.

Computers, smartphones, and the Internet have brought about major changes in world communications and it is because of this globalisation that companies are able to offer their customers better products at the touch of a button.

Who knows what the future holds but at least you know that you have a front-row seat playing the world's biggest international lotto games right here at!


This post was written by
Jason L - who has written 2845 articles
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