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The History of the Lottery


In a small town in rural America, locals gather for the annual lottery. The townspeople squabble over the prizes. Some want to stop the lottery, citing its bad effects on agriculture. Others say that the lottery is a way to make sure all the good people will have a good harvest. Tessie, a poor widow, is the lucky winner of the first prize—a million dollars.

Most people play the lottery for the money, and there is nothing wrong with that. But it’s also a chance to see what life would be like with millions of dollars. People dream about the things they could buy, the houses they would build, and the cars they would drive. In this day and age of inequality and limited social mobility, the idea of instant wealth can be a real draw.

The earliest lotteries date to the Low Countries in the 15th century, where they were used for building walls and town fortifications. Later, public lotteries helped fund American universities including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and King’s College. The Continental Congress even tried to use a lottery to raise funds for the Revolution.

Lotteries are designed to maximize prize revenue while minimizing cost and risk. They do this by attaching odds to prizes, limiting payouts, and reducing the overall number of winners. They are similar to any other business seeking to generate profit while controlling costs and risk.