Saturday, February 13, 2010
Boy Meets Computer Meets GIrl: The Origins of Computer Dating
Happy Valentine's Day weekend! In honor of the holiday, I decided to take a look at a dating fad from the 60s and 70s: computer dating. Yep, the notion of using a computer to play cupid for you is actually not new. A few decades before eHarmony came to be, lonely hearts who couldn't find dates through their friends, in a bar, the local record store, or at the discoteque could use a computer dating service to be set up.
It all started in 1965 when two buddies and Harvard undergrads, Jeff Tarr and Vaughn Morrill, spent yet another dateless Saturday night together. Dreaming up new ways to meet girls, the pair came up with the idea of using a computer to match people up. They knew that Europe was using computers for similar matchmaking purposes. After enlisting the help of another pair of friends, David Crump and Douglas Ginsburg (who would later become a Supreme Court nominee), Operation Match was born.
The concept was simple: participants were given questionnaires meant to assess their personalities. The info gathered from cards were transferred onto punch cards and run through a mainframe computer, and the applicant received information that would be considered illegal today: the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the most compatible matches. So what if any of your potential new significant others turned out to have ten bodies buried in their basement - this was the 60s, after all! The foursome tried to craft their questionnaire with science and humor in mind. Here's a sample question from one of the forms:
Your roommate gets you a blind date for the big dance. Good-looking your roommate says. When you meet your date, you are sure it’s your roommate who is blind – your date is friendly, but embarrassingly unattractive. You:
(1) Suggest going to a movie instead
(2) Monopolize your roommate’s date leaving your roommate with only one noble alternative.
(3) Dance with your date, smiling weakly, but end the evening as early as possible.
(4) Act very friendly the whole time and run the risk of getting trapped into a second date.
One of the toughest questions would always be "How good-looking are you?" The foursome said that ugly people tended to say that they were good-looking, and vice versa.
The group of would-be cupids had to enlist the help of a computer science major to actually get the dating service off the ground. They also rented an Avco 1790 computer (which back in those days took up the space of a room) and were allowed to work on their campus project from only 2 to 4 AM every night. Participants were charged $3 each and it took about six weeks for the Harvard team to produce a match list.
If you can imagine the romanticism that computers and emerging technologies had on society during the mid-60s, then it's probably not a big surprise that the idea of computing dating was viewed as very cutting-edge and ahead of its time. As soon as word got out about this new dating fad, the craze started sweeping college campuses, and Tarr and Morrill collected over 7,000 questionnaires (and match making fees) during the first year in business alone. One female student at Vassar received over 100 matches.
Crump, an aspiring songwriter on the side, even penned a rock and roll composition about computer dating, with the following lyrics:
Well, I filled out my form and I sent it along,
Never hoping I'd get anything like this.
But now when I see her,
Whenever I see her,
I want to give her one great big I.B.M. kiss.
She's my I.B.M. baby, the ideal lady,
She's my I.B.M. baby.
From the first time I met her I couldn't forget her,
She's my I.B.M. baby.
Well we've dated sometime,
Things are going just fine, and I'd like to settle down with her.
Just like birds of a feather
We put 2 and 2 together, and we came one with an I.B.M. affair.
She's my I.B.M. baby, I don't mean maybe,
She's my I.B.M. baby.
By the 70s, it had spread to include older singles in metropolitan areas. One such company was called Compumatics and operated out the New York City area. Computer dating also worked its way into pop culture - on a 1974 episode of Sanford & Son called "Matchmaker", Fred tries to help his son Lamont find a wife through a computer dating company. An episode of "The Odd Couple" showed Oscar trying a computer dating service.
This all begs the question if anyone was actually successful with this form of dating service; did any long-term marriages occur through computer dating? Friends who knew people who tried it at the time say no - and sadly, this was sometimes a last ditch effort for folks who had been single for long stretches and never found love through the usual avenues at the time. My 8th grade class even participated and I remember my matches were the three dweebiest class nerds.
Linda Dannenberg, who wrote to the New York Times a few years ago about her own experiences with campus computer dating in the 60s says, "I remember the delicious anticipation with which we all awaited the names and schools of our matches. I eventually met up with two of mine. One was a Yale sophomore, an earnest fellow from Pocatello, Idaho. The second sentence out of his mouth was, ''If you were a potato, Pocatello would be the center of your world.'' Next!
My other date, Yale '66, a shaggy mathematician, talked hauntingly, obsessively and in exquisitely painful detail about how computers were going to take over the world."
Operation Match, despite receiving over a million responses annually by the late 60s, remarkably failed to make a profit. Eventually it was purchased by investors who used the personality compatibility technology to match up college roommates. By the 80s, personal ads in newspapers and other periodicals and video dating had become the newest way to meet cute and computer dating would fall by the wayside until the Internet came around. Still, we can thank the early efforts of Tarr, Morrill, Crump, and Ginsberg for paving the way to Internet dating as we know it today.