Sweepstakes and sports betting: how the totalizator was born

Sweepstakes and sports betting

A sweepstake or a totalizator is an especial type of making bets. The term stands both for a company that accepts bets on horse and greyhound races and for a device that can calculate the contestant’s chances to win.


As for the winnings, bettors cannot know the amount in advance. They can only guess how much they will get if their bets win. The sweepstakes organizers charge a specific commission of the bets made without participating in the betting game itself.


History of sweepstakes

The history of sweepstakes goes back to the remote past. In 1917, Sir George Julius decided to take the risk of turning his machine for voting into the first automatic totalizator ever.

When professional gamblers came to Randwick to enjoy the spring horse racing carnival, more than a hundred years ago, they literally stepped into the modern era. Before that, they made bets basing on the contestants’ chances to win which were forecasted by the bettors themselves. But in 1917 the hippodrome introduced their first automatic totalizator, a machine calculating the chances.

Located in a private building, which was built specially for that, the machine consisted of a series of copper cogwheels, rods, wires, and pulleys. Basically, it represented a computer, with its only function being the calculation of the winning chance that a specific horse had, basing on who betted on this horse’s victory.


Genius engineer George Alfred Julius and his invention

Totalizator machine

The totalizator that everybody saw then was an advanced calculating machine designed by an Englishman, who got his education in New Zealand and earned his fame in Sydney, the genius engineer George Julius.

Originally, he invented that technology for a different purpose, but later he redesigned it for the hippodrome use, being quite sure that he would easily find those who would want to buy it.

George Alfred Julius was born in Norwich, England, on April 29, 1873. He was a son of a priest who took his family to Australia after being appointed Archdeacon of Ballarat. Julius got his education in the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in Victoria. But when his father took the family to New Zealand in 1890, he got a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of New Zealand (Canterbury College).

His father was also a craftsman, and Julius learned a lot spending time with him in his shop. He found a job at Western Australian Railways in 1896 but moved to Sydney in 1907 to work for a timber processing company, and decided to start a private engineering practice of his own.


How the device for honest elections turned into the totalizator

While Julius was staying in Washington, he discovered some forgeries during the elections, so he spent several years designing a special voting tabulator in order to minimize or even eliminate the human factor when counting votes with the help of his machine. Unfortunately, the government was not interested in his revolutionary device for vote counting, so he began searching for other people that could find his machine useful.

Dog races and totalizator

After Julius had sold one of his vote-counting machines to some customers in New York, a friend of his convinced him that equipment of that kind could be useful for a precise calculation of the bets in the sweepstakes business. It might have been a moral dilemma for him as he was no gambler at all, and his father believed gambling to be a great evil. But then he decided that since he was unable to do something good to fight the election forgeries, he could still do the same thing about the gambling industry which was certainly going to keep on developing, no matter if he liked it or not.

He created a working model, which is now part of the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, and began designing his calculating systems for tracks. One of them was installed at Ellerslie Racecourse in Auckland in 1913. It was the world’s first automatic totalizator, and though it was really an advanced device at that time, the later versions of this invention already used electric components as well.


Further development

In 1917, a new sweepstakes office opened on the track in Washington, and yet another one in Queensland. The same year, Julius established his own company, Automatic Totalisators Ltd. (ATL) and installed his first NSW machine which began operating in Randwick on September 29. The news media of that period reported that huge crowds gathered to try those machines. However, there were also reports stating that only one of the three machines worked on the first day. Besides, there was some resistance against the implementation of the totalizators in New South Wales, by Tattersall’s Club in particular, but it receded to the background in comparison to the social demand.

Horse races and totalizator

In general, the machine was perfect for that time as it could process much more data than people who had to evaluate their chances all in their heads. Later, Julius’ totalizators were installed on many other tracks all over Australia and around the world.

In 1919, Julius established an institute of engineering, and in 1926 he was appointed the first head of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which turned into the CSIRO later on.

Julius’ machines kept on operating on racing tracks all over Australia till computers drove them out in 1970.


Sweepstakes today

Today, bookmaker offices are much more popular than totalizators, so they are gradually becoming a thing of the past. One can hardly get a really big prize there. And totalizators are still used by only some of the bookmakers as a specific type of betting.

The peculiar feature of totalizator betting is that players do not know how much they can get if their bets win. You can place your bet on the exact score of a game or guess the main markets. Thus, the more people guess the correct result, the lower is the prize for each of them.

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