Harvard students created a dating business years ahead of its time
Humans go to great lengths to find romance. Every tool, such as technology, is an option in the ever-present search for love. As a result, the digital realm has also become a choice for lovelorn individuals. The need for love is so strong, so essential, that it has been part of the pre-internet era, which used both old and new technology to connect people.
In 1965, Harvard undergraduates Vaughan Morrill and Jeff C. Tarr were engaged in a late-night discussion. They hit upon an idea: use computers to help people date each other. At that time, women could still not enter certain college spaces such as the Lamont Library, so mixers were one event where students could spend extended amounts of time with each other.
Mixers could feel stilted, though. These events could also be far away from dorms, which could make students feel even more disappointed if a visit didn’t meet their expectations. It was thus the dating scene’s lack of options that might have encouraged Morrill and Tarr to turn their thoughts to a computerized solution. Joan Ball had been the first to create such an enterprise in 1964 with the St. James Computer Dating Service in the UK, but it still was new concept in the USA.
Operation Match, the name of the dating project, soon took shape. David L. Crump, a chemistry-major roommate of Tarr, and Douglas H. Ginsburg, a Cornell University dropout, also became part of the project. They sat down to design a questionnaire that would provide them with information about a client’s characteristics. David L. Crump said of the design of the survey:
What they know now is that opposites don’t attract, that attitudinal similarities attract, and physical appearance that is consistent with expectations attracts — we knew that then. But attraction is a very imperfect science. The questionnaires we wrote were scientific and whimsical — they were packaged as fun to fill out.
On the survey document, clients answered 75 questions about themselves, and then wrote replies to 75 questions about their ideal partner. Hopeful lovers mailed the completed questionnaire as well as the $3 fee to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When the paper reached Operation Match, the employees transferred the answers to punch cards. Team members fed the punch cards into a rented IBM computer. The room-sized computer would spit out the results of the analysis through a sizeable printer. After a couple of weeks, the client received a letter from the operation with the names of the top matches and their phone numbers.
Questions on the survey could range from the SAT of a prospective partner to their sexual experience. One female client got over a hundred matches. During a date, the survey itself could also be a good conversation starter, to such a degree that the atmosphere became more light-hearted.
At first, Operation Match spread the word about their services through local newspapers. A competitor in the computer dating scene soon appeared: Contact Incorporated. On 30 September 1965, when founder David Dewan sought to distribute his surveys near Winthrop House, Operation Match alerted the campus police to his activities. The authorities ejected him from the area.
The truth was Operation Match’s user base became larger than its competitors. Over time, the service became popular on campuses as far away as California. Look magazine’s 1966 Valentine’s Day cover featured Operation Match. Jeff C. Tarr also appeared on radio shows and television shows, such as To Tell the Truth, to give the company even more exposure.
All the publicity helped Operation Match to receive a 100 000 applications in a short period of time. Computer-assisted dating had become a cultural phenomenon. In 1967, for example, an issue of LIFE explained, “Inevitably, the singles game is putting technology to use and the computer-dating service is growing as steadily as the price of a share of IBM.”
A New York office of Operation Match opened its doors on the back of the increased popularity. In the wider market, the service did not find the same enthusiasm it had experienced on campuses, though. Nonetheless, Operation Match had helped over a million clients by 1968. Several matches became marriages, too.
Contact Incorporated, the rival, had ended its operations a year prior. Operation Match’s founders also found it more difficult to juggle their studies and the growth of the company. In the end, they sold one piece of the company to National Student Marketing, and the other section to a hotel matchmaking operation.
Operation Match’s legacy is clear for all to see. Other similar dating services proliferated in various regions during the 1960s and 1970s. Compatibility, one successor, used IBM System/360 Model 40 computers in their business.
In the 1980s, internet chat rooms gave people a way to flirt with each other in real-time, which made it an even more attractive proposition. Despite humble beginnings, computer-assisted courting became the predominant way to find love by the 2010s.