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Today in history… nation holds its breath for Lottery draw

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Optimists across the UK had everything crossed for the first ever National Lottery draw on Saturday November 19th, 1994.

An estimated jackpot of £7 million was up for grabs – that’s around £13.3 million in today’s money – and a £1 ticket bought a one-in-14-million chance of correctly picking the winning six numbers out of 49. Even if you didn’t win the jackpot, lesser prizes were available for anything from three correct numbers to five plus the ‘bonus ball’.

Twenty-five years ago today, the National Lottery was something new for the UK and even people who had never gambled before in their lives were enticed to have a weekly flutter. Even if they didn’t win, their £1 ticket at the very least bought a short-lived dream of untold riches. Camelot, the company chosen to operate the lottery, said around 16 million players had collectively bought about 45 million tickets in the run-up to the first live, televised draw.

Tickets were available from licensed retailers across the UK, printed out from newly-installed lottery machines, but there was anger and frustration in some regions about the initial scarcity of lottery outlets in remote areas. There wasn’t the option to play online back in those days.

The weekly draw took place during an hour-long prime time Saturday night TV slot, hosted by Noel Edmonds and Anthea Turner and with an expected audience of around 25 million, all eagerly clutching their lottery tickets in sweaty palms. For the first show, 49 contestants (one for each lottery ball) were chosen to take part in an “It’s a Knockout” style competition, with the winner (18-year-old Deborah Walsh) earning the honour of pushing the button to start the first live draw.

It involved the 49 numbered and coloured balls tumbling around inside a draw machine, with one ball dropping at randomly timed intervals and landing in a transparent display tube until all six winning numbers and bonus ball were chosen. There were four draw machines, named Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin (in line with Camelot’s ‘Arthurian’ theme), and a machine was chosen at random each week.

The draw was the highpoint of the weekly entertainment programme, which also included things like popstars performing their latest hits and a bizarre section in which astrologer “Mystic Meg” predicted facts about that week’s winners.

The National Lottery was officially launched by Prime Minister John Major a week before the first draw, when tickets went on sale. He said: “The country will be a lot richer because of the lottery. It is in every sense the people’s lottery.”

The country benefited because money raised from ticket sales funded a range of projects across the arts, sport, national heritage, charities and even millennium celebrations, at that time still more than five years away.

Behind the scenes, Camelot built a £10 million computer system to manage the weekly draw. As well as randomly selecting the times for each ball to drop during the draw, it had the huge task of checking the winning numbers against all the tickets bought for that draw to determine the number of winners and calculate the prize fund for each winning combination, including the jackpot. It was expected to know within half-an-hour if there was a top prize winner for the draw.

Meanwhile a pool of Camelot employees staffed phone lines awaiting calls from winners of larger prizes. Those winning smaller prizes could simply claim them from their local retailer by handing in their winning ticket to be checked.

As Britain held its breath, the announcement came that seven lucky jackpot winners would each receive £800,000. That made the total jackpot fund £5.6 million, slightly less than expected due to the high number of players winning smaller prizes that week. In its first 25 years the lottery has raised £40 billion for good causes and paid out almost twice that in prize money.

Over the years the lottery has undergone several changes, with the introduction of more draws, including “Thunderball” and the twice-weekly “Euromillions”, a range of scratchcards, restructured prize funds and the ability to play online. The entertainment element of the weekly TV show was gradually scaled back then scrapped altogether as producers realised the only thing people were really interested in was the draw results.

The highest jackpot to date was a massive £170 million, won by a UK ticket holder in the Euromillions draw in October this year, while in a 2012 Euromillions draw, a winning ticket bought in Hertfordshire and worth almost £64 million was never redeemed. It set a new world record for the biggest unclaimed lottery prize.

The odds of winning the weekly Lotto draw are now more than 45 million to one, while the odds of winning the Euromillions draw (open to players across several European nations) are almost 140 million to one. Still, you never know… it could be you!

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