The history of bingo is a fascinating story of European ingenuity and fun bingo facts, the journey of a game which tapped into our base love of numbers and chance. In fact as we play the game today, most bingo fans would be shocked to hear the origins of the bingo game date back almost 500 years.
As a simple numbers game, it’s not surprising that bingo has lottery in every strand of its DNA. In fact, that’s how it started back in Italy – that hotbed of great inventions – in the 1500s…
Where did bingo originate?
Bingo history buffs have traced the game back to its elementary roots in Italy as a lotto game called Lo Giuoco del Lotto D’Italia. The game was a form of entertainment for the rich but fortunately they couldn’t keep it to themselves for long and all manner of peasants were enjoying it with an ale or two at the end of their day.
By the 1700s the game was being played next door in France and it had evolved to feature 90 numbers and the early predecessors of bingo cards.
A century later – and still not yet called bingo – the game was also put to use as a children’s educational tool, livening up math classes in Germany, a use it still has today.
In the 20th century, across the Atlantic, a version called Beano was created by Hugh J. Ward. This was much closer to the game we now recognise as modern bingo, and it became a popular attraction in carnivals and fairs across the US.
A decade or two after Ward, toy impresario Erwin S. Lowe (the future inventor of Yahtzee) renamed Beano to ‘bingo’ and made a few changes of his own. He is widely seen as the person we have to thank for the standardisation of modern bingo cards, having patented it in 1942.
Thanks to those who started modern bingo like Ward and Lowe, by the mid-1940s bingo had gone mainstream throughout the US. What started as a rich man’s game had become good honest fairground fun for the masses, and later in the century, it would be harnessed by many organisations including local government as a powerful fundraising tool.
The evolution of bingo
Before it was even called bingo, the game had humble beginnings with reusable paper or wooden bingo cards where numbers were painted by hand or stamped in ink. Players would use dried corn, nuts or a variety of purpose-made tokens or discs to mark off their numbers.
With the rise of bingo halls, cards were printed on thinner, cheaper disposable paper. This era of eco conscious consumers will be pleased to see that halls now tend to use either recycled paper for their cards, or play on electronic devices.
Once the game entered the modern era post-1900, it usually involved 90 balls or 75 balls, and cards featured grids of numbers.
Only in recent decades have bingo operators looked for new and exciting – and usually quicker – variations to keep the punters enthralled.
Example of new bingo games include 43 ball bingo known as bonanza, 80 ball bingo which uses a 4×4 grid, and 30 ball using a 3×3 grid.
The earliest forms of bingo centred on what we now call line bingo, with patterns introduced in the 20th century. After pattern bingo, operators continued to look for the next big thing, though many of their innovations have had mixed success.
Games like reverse bingo (where players who complete their cards are eliminated from the game) and team bingo (where all players in a team must mark off their numbers to win) can still be found, but players throughout the history of bingo seem to keep saying “Don’t mess with the recipe!”
At PlayOJO, we like our recipe simple and social, with an extra gallon of fairness. Although we like to mix things up, we guarantee UK bingo players the straight-up 90 ball and 75 ball games they love.
The bingo hall period
A few years after the carnival phase, bingo had become commonplace in retirement homes, charities and churches across the world, particularly in regions where other forms of gambling were outlawed.
In the 1960s the history of bingo took another leap forward. Demand for British bingo and more varied options for socialising created a boom in the introduction of bingo halls. These were purpose-built venues which ran several games per evening, and within years, UK bingo halls were packed out affairs up and down the nation.
They were the hotbed of innovation with standard bingo, mechanised bingo and electronic bingo all developed there. Thanks to electronic bingo and the possibility of linked, national games with massive prizes, bingo became the nation’s favourite entertainment. More bingo halls were opened every year with over 2000 of them throwing open their doors every week at the land-based game’s peak.
After 2005 however, bingo halls fell on hard times and the number of UK bingo halls has been on the decline every year since. Why? Three reasons are often blamed; The inconvenience of the smoking ban, unhelpful changes in taxation and the rise of online bingo.
Players who once loved to meet their mates at the local bingo hall and have a ciggie while they played were now playing many more games per session from the comfort of their homes. They couldn’t compete, though only a brave person would predict their total demise, and as we’ll see, they’ve got some interesting ideas up their sleeve!
Bingo in the internet age
Like online casino and poker, online bingo was fast out of the blocks when the internet arrived in the mid-1990s. With poor graphics and few real money games, the first online bingo experiments failed to light the touch paper, and it took until the mid-2000s for savvy technology firms to apply what they’d learn from successful casino sites to bingo.
Thanks to features like linked progressive jackpots, auto-daub and bingo apps for smartphone, online bingo has exploded in popularity. In under two decades, online bingo has become known as a fast-growing industry worth billions of pounds globally whose player numbers increase year on year.
The arrival of internet bingo also had a fundamental impact on who played. In the 20th century, bingo was primarily a social event for the elder generation, and it was particularly loved by women. Now, with modern graphics and gamification features, online bingo appeals to players of all ages, from 20-somethings to 80-somethings, and at OJO’s place, it’s enjoyed by both men and women in equal measure.
Bingo in popular culture
The history of bingo is peppered with appearances in TV shows, the movies and now on social media. Bingo featured in game shows like Bob’s Full House and Lucky Numbers (hosted by former bingo caller turned Eastender Shane Richie!).
Bingo also pops up in movies such as Bad Grandpa and Hotel Transylvania, as well as recent hit TV series Better Call Saul.
The bingo format has been adapted for other uses too. UK radio DJ Scott Mills made his name on BBC Radio 1 with a game called Innuendo Bingo. Buzzword bingo, a notorious social media weapon for ridiculing public figures known for repeating certain slogans, has swept social media platforms like Twitter.
Some enterprising betting sites even offer markets on the most and least likely phrases to be uttered. Theresa May Bingo (Strong & Stable, anyone?) and Brexit Bingo are some of the buzzword bingo games that trended in 2019.
The future of bingo
With online bingo going from strength to strength, it’s difficult to see a future for bingo anywhere else. But where will the online innovations come from? Some have tried Live Bingo, hoping to copy the runaway success of live casino games, but so far it hasn’t been as well received. Perhaps it’s ahead of its time!
OJO expects mobile bingo to become even more popular, to the point where players may not even play on PCs, Macs or laptops at all. Sounds crazy, but so would bingo halls to a 16th century Italian!
We’ll no doubt see attempts at video-game style bingo software and 3D too. We’ve heard rumours of bingo using augmented reality and virtual reality, but OJO’s not yet convinced that technology is the what his players are after. Simplicity, remember!
But the rapidly changing demographic is an important trend we shouldn’t ignore, and it’s one that, surprisingly, bingo halls and live entertainment venues are first to recognise. Live bingo experiences in bars and clubs featuring social and mobile technology, live music and drag shows are just some of the latest attempts to bring bingo to a new audience, giving it primetime, centre stage billing on a Saturday night. And OJO loves it! Anything that encourages people to discover bingo is fine in his book.
But first things first. OJO dreams of faster, fairer, more exciting bingo, more players, and bigger prizes, all on your mobile phone. Stick with us and see what’s next!