If the news of the always-rising Powerball Jackpot has you itching to go out and buy a ticket (or five), you're not alone. Americans love to play the lottery, with everyone dreaming of someday winning enough money to instantly be free of their debts or to buy anything that they want. It may surprise you to learn, though, that America itself was actually built by the lottery. Here is a look at the history of the lottery and how it made America what it is today.

Lottery origins

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A lottery can be defined as "a game of chance in which people pay for the opportunity to win prizes." The prize is usually money, and some of that money is used to pay for the costs of running the lottery, while the rest is awarded to the winner or kept as a profit. This type of system has been around since almost the dawn of time, with several ancient documents describing similar practices. The first time the United States was involved in a lottery, though, was in 1612. In an attempt to bring in money to fund the first British colony of Jamestown, Virginia, King James held a lottery in England. The profits were used to help pay for the essentials necessary to build the colony and keep it running, and its success prompted other organizations to use the lottery as a fundraising method as well.


By the 1700s, it seemed like lotteries were being used for everything in America. George Washington ran a lottery in the 1760s to bring in funding for the construction of Virginia's Mountain Road. Benjamin Franklin used lotteries to help pay for cannons during the Revolutionary War. John Hancock even used them to raise money to rebuild the famous Faneuil Hall in Boston, also known as the "Cradle of Liberty."


Lotteries continued to run hot and heavy even during the Revolutionary War, but in the 1830s, they ran up against some opposition. There were multiple lottery scams that made the public lose faith in the institution, and the voices of religious leaders who had always opposed gambling grew louder and more convincing. There was also the idea floating around that sitting around waiting to win the lottery was a waste of time, and that that time would be better spent helping out with the work around the colonies. In 1833, states began to ban lotteries outright, with only three states (Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri) allowing lottery ticket sales by 1860.


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With a few exceptions, the lottery (legal versions of it, anyway), was pretty much dead after it was banned by so many states in the 1800s. It finally made a comeback in 1964, though, when New Hampshire launched the first modern lottery in the United States. In 1973, the Scientific Games foundation came up with an algorithm that made instant-win games possible. A year after that, the first secure scratch-off game was invented in Massachusetts, and a year after that the New Jersey Lottery introduced the first lottery that used computerized numbers. After this, the lottery grew in leaps and bounds, with new innovations and improvements rolling out every year. In 1985, the first multi-state lottery was instituted, with the precursor to the Powerball (then called "Lotto*America") debuting in 1987.

Current Day

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The 2000s and 2010s have seen the lottery—and the lottery jackpot—grow more and more, thanks to technology like computers and smartphones that make it even easier to play. In 2014, the Illinois Lottery became the first lottery app that allowed players to buy tickets on their mobile phone. In 2016, the Powerball jackpot set a new world record at an incredible $1.58 billion prize. We won't blame you if you run out to buy a ticket right now!