From Damn Interesting:
François-Marie Arouet knew how to get into trouble. After a very public scuffle with a nobleman nearly ended in a duel, the young playwright was exiled from Paris, the city where his plays were only just coming into fashion. He lived in dreary England for two whole years before slinking back to France, where he lived in the house of a pharmacist. There he experimented with various potions and poultices, but nothing would cure the vague sense of impotence and dread that dogged him.
Finally in 1729 the gates of Paris were opened to Arouet again, but he was still ill-at-ease. At a dinner party held by the chemist Charles du Fay, Arouet, better known by his pen-name Voltaire, found the cure he had been looking for. He met a brilliant mathematician called Charles Marie De La Condamine, who promised a panacea better than any Voltaire had found at his pharmacist.
It wasn’t medicine–it was money. Condamine had a plan that would make both him and Voltaire more money than he could ever scratch together by writing plays or poems, enough money to allow Voltaire to never have to worry about money again. He would be free to live how he wanted and write what he wanted. The plan was simple. Condamine planned to outsmart luck herself. He was going to arrange to win the lottery.
At the time the French crown secured much of its revenue by issuing government bonds. In 1727, in order to save money, the state cut the bonds’ interest rate. The market value of these bonds plummeted, and the market became wary of French credit. The French state was left without an easy way of raising money.
A Deputy Finance Minister named Le Pelletier-Desforts had a great idea that would let the state drive up the prices of the bad bonds and so restore faith in the government’s finances. In his scheme owners of bad bonds could buy a lottery ticket. If your ticket won, you would win back the face value of your original bond–plus an extra jackpot of 500,000 livres. This was a lot of money. While no comparison to modern-day currency is possible, an annual income of only 30,000 livres would make a person very, very rich. 500,000 livres was enough to make a person rich for the rest of their lives.
French citizens were allowed to buy a ticket for every bond they owned at 1/1000th of the bond’s value. A ticket for a 1,000 livre bond cost one livre, while a ticket for a 10,000 livre bond cost ten livres. But both tickets had equal chances of winning the 500,000 livre jackpot. Condamine realized that a group of people could buy up a lot of cut-price bonds, split them into tiny parcels of 1,000 livres, buy up cheap lottery tickets, and thus easily win the huge jackpot....MUCH MORE including what Voltaire's wealth meant to Candide