What is a Lottery?

Lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated to participants by a process that depends on chance. Prizes may be of various types, including money, goods, services, real estate, or even a car. Lotteries can take a variety of forms, from those used to determine who gets units in a subsidized housing block to kindergarten placements in a public school. Among the most well-known are those that dish out large cash prizes to winning ticket holders.

Lotteries have a long history, dating to ancient times. The biblical Book of Numbers tells of Moses’s assignment of land by lottery, and the practice was common in China during the Han dynasty (205 to 187 BC) and in ancient Rome, where wealthy Roman emperors gave away property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts and other entertainments.

People who participate in lotteries buy tickets for a fee, then the numbers are drawn at random by machines or by human beings. Those with matching numbers win prizes, such as cash or goods. The earliest known lottery-like arrangement was a piece of wood with symbols on it, passed around during a Saturnalian dinner party in ancient Rome. Guests could win prizes that included fine dinnerware and other desirable items.

During the 17th century, lotteries became quite popular in Europe and England, where they were viewed as painless forms of taxation. Lotteries were used to raise money for a variety of projects, including the building of the British Museum and many of the American colonies’ colleges—Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and Union—among others.