Francois-Marie Arouet, better-remembered by his pen name “Voltaire,” was born on this day in 1694. In the course of a relatively long life (he died at the ripe old age of 83) he was a famous philosopher, an aristocrat who mingled with famed writers and theologians as well as politicians–and a lottery scammer. In fact, without the lottery, none of the other stuff might have been possible.
It all unfolded when Voltaire was in his 30s. At the time, he was “neither rich nor particularly famous,” writes Andy Williamson for Today I Found Out, although he’d become known as one of the philosophes—18th-century intellectuals—and as an author. He’d also had a few run-ins with the turbulent French government of the time: Earlier, he’d spent more than a year in the Bastille, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, and he’d just returned from a two-year exile in England, where he’d been sent as the result of a spat with a nobleman who made fun of his adopted name, Voltaire.
If the above doesn’t make it clear, Voltaire–like other eighteenth-century philosophes such as Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau–already lived on the edge of propriety in a society where being improper could (and did, for all these men) land you in jail. His exploitation of state-run lotteries, seen in this context, just seems like another way that his ideas and his ability to reason may have led him to jail–although he got away with this one, as did his collaborator, mathematician Charles Marie de la Condamine.
“Lotteries were all the rage in eighteenth-century Paris,” writes Roger Pearson for Lapham’s Quarterly. There were several causes of this, he writes, but the general financial uncertainty contributed to the public’s eagerness to participate in such a get-rich-quick scheme.
Starting in 1729, the French government started running a lottery on bonds it owned, in an attempt to promote the purchase of these bonds. Only bond-holders could buy tickets in this lottery, and the price was pegged to the value of the bond. Winners would get the face value of the bond in addition to a 500,000-livre jackpot, a huge sum of money at the time.
“Unfortunately for the government, and fortunate for those of you who enjoy Voltaire’s work, the mathematics behind this new government fundraising scheme was vastly flawed,” Williamson writes:
You see, if you owned a bond worth a very small amount, with the lotto ticket for the bond costing just 1/1000th of the value, you could buy the lotto tickets extremely cheaply, yet your lotto ticket had just as much of a chance of winning as someone who owned a bond for 100,000 livres and had to buy their ticket for 100 livres. Thus, de la Condamine realized that if he was able to buy up a large percentage of the existing small bonds, split into 1,000 livres a bond, he could then buy each lotto ticket for just 1 livre. If he owned enough of these small bonds, he could quickly give himself the bulk of the entrees in the lotto while spending much less than the jackpot, thus assuring he’d win quite often and always win much more than he put in.
This system worked best if a consortium of players bought tickets together and split the winnings, so, writes Pearson, Voltaire, de la Condamine and 11 compatriots teamed up and by June 1730, all had made a tidy sum. Voltaire’s take was around half a million livre, which he took to the duchy of Lorraine to play the same game again.
When he came back to Paris, writes Pearson, “he began to invest large sums in the highly lucrative business of army supplies, which he continued to do for the next twenty years. The money he made elevated him in society and protected him from further imprisonment and persecution. It also allowed him to work full-time as a philosopher, political theorist and playwright, helping to shape the ideas of the modern age.