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Did You Know? Computer Matchmaking Started in the 1960s

Long before eHarmony and Match.com, two companies helped singles find dates based on compatibility

Illustration: iStockphoto

Discovering your next significant other by swiping through Tinder and other dating apps might sound like modern romance. But the idea of searching a database to find a compatible mate isn’t new. In fact, it started in the 1960s.

In 1962 English shopkeeper Joan Ball founded the Eros Friendship Bureau, a matchmaking service in Cambridge geared toward people who were ready for marriage. She soon concluded that she’d need a faster, more efficient way of matching up her growing list of clients, according to an article in Logic magazine. Ball began asking clients what they didn’t want in a partner—assuming the rest was negotiable—and had them write down their responses in a standardized way that could be compared and quantified. In 1964 she helped design the first computerized matchmaking system.

A group of Harvard University students came up with a similar idea in December 1964. They founded Compatibility Research and started a nationwide campaign that offered other students a chance to find matches by simply sending in a completed questionnaire. The students used an IBM 1401 computer to process the responses.

By the end of 1966 both companies found moderate success throughout Europe and the United States, respectively—which ultimately paved the way for today’s dating services.

CODING FOR COMPATIBILITY

Joan Ball had no programming skills, but she knew that with the help of a computer she could more efficiently sort through her clients’ information and find better matches. She hired a programmer to realize her vision of a computer matchmaking program. The program successfully matched people based on their shared dislikes—and soon Ball renamed her company Com-Pat (short for Computerized Compatibility).

She was discreet about advertising her business. At the time, people in straitlaced British society suspected that matchmaking services were fronts for prostitution, according to the Logic article. She often advertised her business on pirate radio stations, which transmitted broadcasts from ships in the English Channel.

Meanwhile, the group of Harvard students discussed the challenges of dating, particularly the “irrationality of two particular social evils: the blind date and the mixer,” according to a 1965 article in The Harvard Crimson

. The group included Jeffrey Tarr, David Crump, Douglas H. Ginsburg, and Vaughn Morrill. They wondered if computers might be useful in solving the problem.

They had heard about Com-Pat and decided to start a company of their own: Compatibility Research. In their first and most successful campaign, Operation Match, 70,000 U.S. university students sent completed questionnaires along with a US $3 fee. Each response was punched into a card; the cards were fed into a computer, and the machine generated a list of names and addresses of seemingly compatible respondents.

“What we wanted was something more permanent than a mixer but more fun than a marriage bureau,” a member of the group said in the article. But they soon understood that soliciting enough responses to turn a profit wouldn’t be as easy as they’d hoped.

The Compatibility Research founders worked with students in Harvard’s social relations department (now the sociology department) to come up with the questionnaire. It was designed to help respondents find dates, not necessarily life partners. Questions included “Do you believe in a God who answers prayer?” and “Is extensive sexual activity in preparation for marriage part of ‘growing up?’”

GETTING THE WORD OUT

The Harvard students started advertising their campaign and distributing questionnaires in February 1965. A few weeks later, returns were still light, and the students realized that they underestimated the cost of processing the answers. They figured they’d need at least 8,000 responses if their campaign was going to be financially successful.

By a stroke of luck, the CBS quiz show “To Tell the Truth” invited Morrill to appear as one of its mystery guests, and he was able to promote Operation Match, giving it free national publicity.

Soon after, the company’s founders paid to have Vicki Albright, a law student at the University of California, Los Angeles, visit Harvard. Albright had been selected by UCLA’s law school as Woman of the Year and was featured on the cover of Newsweek. Compatibility Research announced it was going to determine Albright’s “ideal match” from the questionnaires it had already received. The computer determined that her top match was Harvard student Kevin Lewis. The story and photos of Lewis and Albright were picked up by the Associated Press and printed in newspapers around the United States.

After that publicity, the amount of responses the company received soon doubled. The business grew so successful that it set up offices in Boston, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Operation Match quickly moved on to selling its services to nonstudents. But it wasn’t profitable, and it folded a short time later.

Ball’s company continued to flourish for a few more years. By the 1970s, she developed a second version of her software. Com-Pat II used better data, and the company had a larger customer pool. Four years later she sold the business to Dateline, a competitor that had been inspired by Operation Match.

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