Bingo is a relatively new game, descendent from lotteries of old. Lotteries were first organized and used collectively by the Italian government in the 1530’s. Bingo’s history stems from a French lotto lover who developed an alternative version of the lotteries that existed at the time. The initial alteration had three horizontal rows and nine vertical rows with numbered and blank squares in random arrangements. The columns were broken into sets of 10 numbers, 1-10, 11-20, all the way up to 90 in the last column. The bingo balls were chips in those days, and pulled out of a sac by the caller. The first player to cover a horizontal row was declared the winner.
In the 1800’s Bingo variations began to be used as teaching devices. Germany used a version intended to teach its youth multiplication tables. Other educational lotto games existed for spelling, history, biology, you name it! This trend has never died, a quick walk through your local toys-r-us will most likely reveal a Milton Bradley variation of the game with Sesame Street characters, intended to teach numbers and counting.
Up until this point though, bingo was not bingo, it was still known as a lotto game or variation. The coining of the term bingo is most often attributed to a slip of the tongue, in the excitement of yelling ‘Beano’! Beano was the name of a carnival game traveling around New York state around the same time that Edwin S. Lowe was searching for a game to rescue his struggling toy company venture.
Lowe tells the story of going back to New York and gathering up beans, rubber stamps and cardboard cards to hold his own beano get-together with friends. As a sort of test Lowe acted as the caller, and it wasn’t long before he realized the addictive qualities of the game. In one of these initial games, a friend of lowe’s was fast approaching a winning card as Lowe watched with facination. As the woman approached the win she became more and more exciting, more tense, and finally when she won she jumped up and tried to stammer out ‘beano!’ but it came out garbled as ‘bingo!’.
One story always mentioned when discussing the history of bingo is about the one man who went insane over the game (yes, a million women have followed suit). The tale goes as so: Lowe was approached a couple of years after the release of Bingo by a parishioner who had adopted the game as a church fundraiser. The parishioner had come across the problem of cards with the same number combinations, in which there were multiple winners on the same game. To circumvent this Lowe approached a preeminent mathematician of the time, Carl Leffler of Columbia University. Leffler took on the task of creating 6000 unique Bingo cards, slowly working them out one card at a time. Being paid on a cards produced basis, Leffler found the more he made the harder his job was, and near the end was charging $100 for each unique card produced. As the story goes, soon after completing the task of creating all 6000 cards, the professor went insane, perhaps by direct result! The rest, as they say, is bingo history.