The History of Bingo - Complete Guide

The game of chance we call bingo has been enjoyed for nearly 500 years. As such, the staying power of this game is astounding.

Last Updated on August 14, 2020 by Lillian Grey

The rich tapestry of bingo’s history really is fascinating and it’s made quite the transformation over the years. It went from a fairly basic but entertaining game to a multifaceted and diverse pastime which is popular all over the world.

Many a homage has been paid to bingo over the years. But the premise remains the same - bingo is a game of chance, a bit of escapism in a sometimes confusing world.

We have put together a complete guide on the history of bingo - from its beginnings as an Italian lottery, to the bingo we play today on our smartphones.

In the Beginning: 16th and 17th Century

In the Beginning 16th and 17th Century

Bingo can be traced back to 1530 in Italy. An Italian lottery named “Lo Giuoco del Lotto D'Italia" was created to aid the government in raising funds.

Although not exactly the same as the Italian version, historians say that gambling first existed in British society starting around the time of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603).

The lottery was reserved for the upper classes in England during this time. But a couple of decades after Elizabeth I’s ruling had ended, the game had been adopted by lower classes.

By the mid-1600s there is evidence of a lottery game called ‘Shove Groat’ (Groat was a coin worth 4 silver pennies). This game became very popular in alehouses (pubs) amongst the working classes.

The Rest of Europe and Great Britain: 18th Century

By the late 1700s, Lo Giuoco del Lotto D'Italia had found its way over to France. Here it was renamed ‘Le lotto’ and was frequently played by French aristocrats.

Once the game was well established in France, it was adapted into a closer version of the game of bingo we know today. The development of the game included the playing card being split into 9 vertical rows and 3 horizontal.

This is where things will begin to sound more familiar. Every vertical row had numbers from 1-10 on row 1, and 11-20 on row 2. This pattern continued all the way up to 90.

Every horizontal row had 4 blank squares and 5 numbered squares, and ‘Chips’ were numbered 1-90. Players were then given a card and the dealer (or caller) would call the numbers out from the chips within the bag.

Meanwhile back in England, according to records, in 1716 the first game resembling bingo today was recorded. The lord mayor of London at the time banned women from ‘dicing’. This led to the working women finding a way around the law by creating a game using numbered wheels.

Many illegal games of chance were reported around this era and were immensely popular, especially amongst the working class and slum dwellers.

In fact, in 1795 The Newgate Calendar reported that an illegal lottery house was searched and around 30 people arrested. It was reported that the women of industrious mechanics had gambled away their money as well as wedding rings and many other possessions.

Some upper-class people reportedly wagered so much that the family lost their entire estate on one night of gambling!

Bingo and the Military: 19th Century

It’s said that the game reached Germany in the early 1800s. Here it was adapted and mostly used to educate children in maths, history and spelling.

It is also believed that in 1814, the British Royal Navy learned Maltese Tombola whilst stationed in the country. This was a very entertaining way to pass the time.

The British Military didn’t approve of any other forms of gambling with a cash win apart from bingo. The truth is that during the Great War between 1914 and 1918, bingo offered a lot of relief from the gruesomeness of trench warfare.

Migration to America: 20th Century

By 1914, a hundred years later, all ranks of the military were enjoying bingo regularly (although it wasn’t called bingo yet).

In fact, it is thought that some of the earliest bingo calls like “waterloo 62” originated around this time. Numbers ran from 1 to 90, and there were 5 figures on every row. They would often use pieces of bread, uniform buttons and bottle tops to mark the number off.

Onto other parts of the world, the game of chance is thought to have been introduced to North America in the early 1900s by an entrepreneur called Hugh Ward.

Legend has it that he came across the lotto game whilst on a carnival tour in Germany and renamed it ‘Beano’. The game was very reminiscent of the French version, but players used beans to cover up any numbers on their card which had been called. Hence the name.

Fast forward to the early 1920s, a New York toy salesman called Edwin S. Lowe stumbled across a carnival near Georgia. The carnival booth was said to be packed out with people playing this version of lotto.

He later recalled that players were “practically addicted to the game”, eventually having to be asked to leave in the early hours of the morning. As soon as a line was filled, no matter the direction, the lucky winner would shout ‘BEANO!”.

Lowe was so intrigued by the excitement of the game that he purchased some beans and began stamping numbers on cards to test the game out in New York. The story goes that a female participant accidentally shouted out ‘BINGO’ upon a winning combination and the name stuck.

The toy salesman renamed the game Bingo, originally releasing 24 card sets. By the year 1930, Lowe had hired mathematics professor Carl Leffler to increase the number combinations to 6,000. This was in order to reduce the repetition in number groups, therefore making the game even more thrilling for players.

By the 1940s, the majority of Americans were playing bingo with enthusiastic regularity. And it didn’t take long for other parts of Europe to catch on. From around 1949 in England, bingo was offered as a source of merriment in holiday camps like Warners and Butlins. A survey carried out in 1950 found that 80% of British respondents had partaken in gambling.

In the mid-1950s, and partly due to the introduction of the commercial TV channel ITV - Britain saw a huge drop in the number of people seeking entertainment at cinemas and theatres. This led to a large number of cinemas being converted into concert and dance halls. Many of these were eventually turned into bingo halls.

The halls would only put bingo on a few days a week to start with. However, it soon became apparent that the bingo halls were hugely popular. By the late 1950s, bingo halls were permanent fixtures in British society and one could be found on just about every street.

At this time gambling was so popular that it became blatantly obvious that no amount of laws were going to stop this industry expanding.

Commercial Bingo was Born: 1960’s

By the 1960s, bingo halls were popping up all over England. These halls were frequented regularly and were considered a night of entertainment (as well as a meeting place for socialising). Players could socialise with friends and neighbours with the hope of winning big.

The commercialisation of bingo came about after the introduction of the Betting and Gaming Act (1961). The leisure industry suddenly gained access to a new and profitable market. The Act was intended to enforce control over the illegal street betting taking place. This was a growing problem at the time.

According to the first bill published, it was allowed for a club to host ‘housey housey’, as long as the money staked by the players was returned to them. The problem was that the bill also permitted charging players to partake.

Seaside corporations and the anti-gambling movement soon noticed a loophole in the legislation. The Churches Council noted that clubs would be able to bypass the act, feeling that opportunists would be able to promote gambling and ‘go through the back door’ so to speak.

On January 1st 1961, the new legislation was brought in. By January 3rd the very first commercial bingo club was opened, and by 1963 these clubs had a total of nearly 14.5 million members.

When gambling became legal, there was a quick development of bingo as a ‘product’ which could be offered to the mass market. The way that food, drink and equipment used to be supplied to Mecca ballrooms of the past, could now be implemented by the gambling space.

What was once merely a national pastime time was fast becoming a large scale affair. Organisations which were left idle when the UK;s entertainment tastes changed were now saved by ordinary people’s thirst for bingo.

Mecca and Fairness

Most notably was Mecca - an organisation which started out as a dance hall. When dance halls fell out of favour they got on board with bingo instead and became one of the most recognisable names attached to the game. Prizes now included cruises, mink stoles and dishwashers. From time to time clubs would feature the big celebrities of the day as ‘guest callers’ for an evening.

The bingo caller would be perched in front of a big see-through box, and the numbered balls were blown around the box. Then one by one these balls would be forced through a tube, he would catch the balls and call the numbers. The caller would then illuminate said numbers on a large board behind him for everyone to see.

The ‘blower and balls’ was advertised as a way of guaranteeing fairness by the bingo industry. The problem was that it soon became apparent that the technology could be beaten, despite the claims from bingo providers.

In the early days of bingo having become commercialised, fraudster operators had many tricks to cheat unsuspecting punters. One of the strategies was reading aloud a different number to the number drawn. The other was subtly reinserting the ball into the blower.

Techniques like these were usually used to make sure that an accomplice playing in the crowd bagged the prize. This could also be used to speed the game up.

The Birth of the Internet

The Birth of the Internet

Bingo halls enjoyed decades of success and there were hundreds of locations (or clubs) scattered around the UK. By the 1990s, public interest in what used to be a British staple seemed to wane dramatically.

Although internet technology was first invented in the late 1960s, the phenomenon as we know it today wasn’t developed until the creation of the world wide web. This is credited to British scientist Tim Berners-Lee.

The world wide web allowed for the information to be linked together, for the first time using ‘links’. In other words, being able to click on a link and be taken somewhere else.

The first-ever web browser was introduced in 1992 by the University of Illinois. In a nutshell, the web browser is the tool which surfs the web for information, creates matches and then lists the results.

In 1994, the development of commercial internet was made possible. This is because the National Science Foundation sold control of the framework of the internet, essentially high-speed lines and routers.

A year later around 50 million people were connected to the internet. This opened up the door for the development of the first online bingo site called ‘Bingo Zone’ in 1996. This was closely followed by one called ‘Bingo Blitz’ in 1998.

Due to the fact that not many people had a home computer the first few years, the online gambling space was considered fairly unsuccessful. But, with technology constantly evolving we started to see traditional games being made into impressive themed video slots.

Things started picking up for online bingo platforms in the late 1990s, with more people owning computers. A game which in previous decades was associated with the older generation, particularly women, gradually grew in popularity amongst all age groups.

Online Bingo Takes Off: The 21st Century

By the early to mid-2000s, online bingo sites were popping up all over the place, and platforms were able to captivate new audiences and old.

Online bingo took over the world and the old rowdy bingo halls of yesteryear were favoured less and less. The smoking ban of 2007 is believed to have contributed to the demise of bingo halls as the nation's favourite source of entertainment.

It has to be said though that there was also a big shift in how we lived our day to day lives. The convenience of the internet changed everything. We no longer needed to get dressed and go out for entertainment. We live in a world where we want things readily available and in the palm of our hands. Playing bingo online certainly provided that luxury for the bingo loving masses.

Cutting out the costs of running land-based bingo halls enabled players to be able to access better prizes and a diverse amount of games. Not to mention the plethora of bingo sites being introduced, creating healthy competition and as a result great deals to attract new customers.

By the late 2000s, most people were turning to the internet for a multitude of things from banking to shopping. So, of course, it became the norm for playing our favourite game of bingo as well.

Most online sites still allowed players to play the traditional 90-ball bingo, only with better prizes. Players also had access to more variations on these bingo games than there ever have been before. All from the comfort of their own homes.

People were signing up to bingo sites in their droves to learn and participate in the bingo craze sweeping the globe.

The Gambling Commission

The Gambling Commission was founded as a (non-departmental) public body of the government. In 2005 the ‘Gambling Act 2005’ was set up in order to regulate all commercial gambling and protect players against crime.

The commission partnered up with third-party testing houses to make sure all platforms were (and are) operated safely for customers. Before a new bingo site can begin to operate they must first obtain a licence from the commission. Any new game or even changes in a game also need to be tested thoroughly for fairness to the player.

In 2014, the Commission introduced the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014. This meant that any company outside of the UK who wanted to advertise their website in England, Wales or Scotland had to apply for a licence from the Gambling Commission.

How the Mobile Phone Changed Bingo

As we’ve said, technology not only radicalised our lives but also the way we play bingo. In comes the mobile phone. Of course, mobile phones were around in the 1980s, usually seen in movies resembling a black house brick and used by suited and booted business types.

By the early 1990s, the world's first smartphone was invented by IBM. It doesn’t look like anything we would recognise today, but it was the first-ever touchscreen phone nonetheless.

Of course, the chances of your average Joe having ever laid their eyes on this gadget is highly unlikely. As with most new inventions it takes at least a few years to filter down to the general population.

Fast forward to the year 2000 and for the first time ever - smartphones were connected to a 3g network. This means that we had the internet in our hands. Needless to say, these days we couldn’t imagine life without it. Most people consider their mobile phone a limb, a part of themselves.

By 2007, the world saw the first-ever iPhone. This was arguably the first phone in history to allow users to browse the world wide web. And not in a watered-down version like before, we were able to surf the web in the same way we could on our computers at home.

We now have access to a multitude of online casinos and bingo platforms, most of which are mobile compatible. With well over 2 billion mobile users worldwide, it’s hardly surprising that bingo shines here as well.

Mobile Bingo Technology Continues to Thrive

Come 2010, any technological hiccups with the fluidity and graphics of online bingo had been all but ironed out. Bingo platforms were now in their hundreds with technology improving with every year.

Thanks to the clever software providers, bingo fans started to see an even wider variety of games as well as chat room features. A nostalgic nod to the social side of the old bingo halls, which were much loved nationwide.

In fact, nowadays over half of bingo players now play the game on their mobile phones. Software developers are constantly evolving to keep with the times - making games extremely compatible with mobile phones and tablets.

Not only this, but games are just as entertaining and no quality is lost when it comes to graphics and the platform.

As we’ve said, things have changed a lot, and in this day and age as long as the site you are playing bingo on holds a licence, you know you are protected. Your personal information and funds are protected by law, and the online space is a much safer place to play.

Bingo in 2020 and Beyond

Bingo is still evolving and flourishing, with no sign at all of slowing down. Sure, maybe there isn’t quite as much call for your ‘bog standard’ 90-ball bingo, but that’s okay.

All of the bingo games we play now are derived from the traditional game, and variety is the spice of life right? We can’t see the popularity of bingo ever going away. There are just so many exciting varieties.

Players are now able to play bingo, table games, slots and more all on the go or from the comfort of their own homes. The impact bingo apps have had on the player's experience is undeniable.

With so many lucrative welcome bonuses, huge jackpots, progressive jackpots and gamification giving us the element of adventure - the only way is up.

Popular Bingo Variations and Jackpots Today

As you can see, bingo has come a long way in the last 500 years. There is now more choice for players than ever before.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the most popular bingo variations and jackpots in 2020. Alongside a brief explanation of how they are played, just in case you are new to the game.

90-Ball Bingo

The beloved 90-ball bingo is probably also the most well known. Numbers will be randomly shown across 9 columns and there will be 5 numbers in every row. There is going to be 15 numbers on the bingo card in total - and obviously 90 balls.

The traditional version allows people to win in 2 different stages. The first person to successfully complete a horizontal row wins. The second and final winner is the person who gets all of the numbers on the card. This is a full house and the player wins the top prize.

80-Ball Bingo

80-ball bingo only came about after the birth of the internet. In fact, it was invented with online bingo players in mind. In order to win, you must check off a full row following the exact pattern on the card. Every column has a range of numbers; for example row 1 will have numbers 1-20, row 2 will have 21-40 and so forth.

Your bingo card will be 4 by 4, with 16 numbers. Some of the most commonly used patterns for winning are vertical lines, horizontal lines, single numbers and 4 corners. Some platforms offer even more experimental bingo card patterns.

75-Ball Bingo

This one is really popular in America. In fact, it’s often called American bingo and comes in various formats. To win first you must complete a row of numbers marked off your bingo card. Generally, this can be diagonal, down or up. Some variations enable you to use different patterns to finish your row.

Your bingo card will contain 25 squares within a 5 by 5 grid, In each square, the centre square is blank, and has 24 numbers around it.

Slingo

In 1995, Sal Falciglia Sr combined the principles of bingo and slot machines. As such, ‘Slingo’ was born. These days Slingo is played by over 50 million people

There are now over a dozen iterations of Slingo available to play, a reflection of the game's popularity. The basic premise is that you will have a bingo card on your screen as normal, and then at the bottom or side of the screen, you will see a reel (this is the slot element of the game).

Speed Bingo

Sometimes called 30-ball bingo, not every bingo platform will offer this version but people like it for the speed. In this variety, your bingo card will have 9 numbers, and every square will be filled with a 3 by 3 grid.

It is fast-paced and there will be one big prize for whoever is lucky enough to get a full house. The stakes are high and this version of bingo is sure to get your heart pounding.

Bingo Tournaments

The jackpots in tournament games can be sizable as there are so many people playing the same game. Essentially, if you join a bingo tournament it means you are playing against a larger number of other bingo players.

Generally, players will be given a predetermined amount of time to complete challenges. These challenges earn you points to enable you to go through to the next round of the tournament. The games you need to play in order to qualify will be set out for you by the tournament platform.

There might be challenges such as; the player who obtains the most points from a 4-day tournament wins their share in the £2,000 pool of prize money.

Themed Bingo

Themed bingo games have seen a rise in recent years - with software companies keeping on top of their game in the graphics and gamification of online casino and bingo sites.

These days, it’s not uncommon for you to see Harry Potter themed bingo with slots on the side,  or bingo games based on a movie or pop group.

Fixed Jackpot Bingo

With a fixed jackpot, the prize doesn’t alter in value. For example, if the jackpot on offer is £2,000, it will still be worth £2,000 no matter how long the bingo game lasts.

Rollover Jackpot Bingo

With a rollover jackpot, unlike above, if the prize is set to £2,000 and no one wins the game, the prize will go up in value in the following game. There will always be a minimum rollover prize regardless, for example, £3,000.

Progressive Jackpot Bingo

Whether it’s online bingo or slots, the progressive jackpot is probably the most popular of them all. The reason it’s so popular is that a portion of every bingo ticket sold is put towards the jackpot prize.

The jackpot continues to grow until someone is lucky enough to win it, so the payout potential can be huge.

By just entering a quick search online, you will be faced with hundreds upon hundreds of different games and variations on classic bingo games. At various points in time, advancements in technology have rocketed bingo into our daily lives.

History of Bingo: The Verdict?

We hope you have enjoyed your journey through the history of bingo and gained some knowledge of where one of the nation’s most beloved games came from.

Bingo went unregulated for hundreds of years, and so the gaming bills of the 1960s certainly had an effect on the game and how we play it.

Since then, even more regulation came into play and as a result, every game we play is rigorously tested for fairness. On top of that, all bingo sites must adhere to strict rules set out by the Gambling Commission.

It's so easy in life to take pleasure out of things without ever taking the time to learn how it grew to be what it is. Bingo is such a great source of hope and escapism around the world and we think it’s had a pretty colourful history.

Thanks to the great advancements in technology, we are now able to play bingo from the palm of our hands. And who knows, maybe one day we will all be sitting in virtual bingo halls in our own homes!