Every year, millions of people use services like eHarmony and Match.com hoping to find romance by answering a questionnaire and spending a little cash. If all goes well, the computer will serve as Cupid and maybe you’ll find happiness with that someone special.
The road to today’s computer assisted matchmaking began much earlier than most people realize—in the 1960s. Two Harvard undergraduates were talking on a dateless Saturday night over a few drinks. Jeff Tarr and Vaughn Morrill came up with a far-out idea: use a newfangled computer to arrange compatible dates. Thus was born Operation Match, and as Tarr recalls, “The goal was not to make money but to have some fun and to meet some attractive ladies”
David Crump and Douglas Ginsburg (a future Supreme Court nominee) aided Tarr and Morrill in creating a questionnaire. The questionnaire ran several pages and asked everything from height and weight statistics to how a person would react to a hypothetical situation.
Here’s a sample of one of the questions:
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.
The group believed that opposites don’t attract, that attitudinal likenesses do attract and physical looks that are consistent with expectations also attract. The questionnaire they wrote was both scientific and whimsical and billed as fun to fill out. Respondents paid $3 to participate.
The students knew nothing about computers. Tarr paid $100 to a computer science student to write program code designed to match up questionnaires. Being 1966, all the data from the questionnaires were transferred to punch cards. The team then rented a room-sized computer, an Avco 1790, on which they were allowed to work with from 2 am to 4 am. It took six weeks to produce a match list.
Questionnaire respondents then received a letter saying who they were matched to, with phone numbers. The idea of using a computer for romance worked positively and negatively in the mid 60s. There was a belief that using computers would take all of the romance out of dating. But the use computers at that time seemed very modern and very cutting-edge.
The questionnaire evolved over the years with the toughest question to deal with always being: “How good looking are you?”. Ugly people tended to say they were good looking, and good looking people would say they were ugly.
Thanks to publicity in Look Magazine and appearances on a few television shows Operation Match continued to grow. The first year the service ended up with 7,800 respondents from Harvard, Vassar, Smith and Mt. Holyoke. Every letter contained the $3 matchmaking fee. By 1968 Operation Match had solicited more a million respondents and mail was coming from colleges nationwide. But the service was not making a profit. Eventually Operation Match (and its parent company Compatibility Research Inc.) were bought up by investors who used the technology to match up college roommates.
Jeff Tarr went on to become the chairman of a New York risk-arbitrage firm and Vaughn Morrill went on to a 31 year career as a science teacher in St. Louis.
The idea of computer dating was an idea before its time. When the personal computer became commonplace people were less resistant to electronic matchmaking. The introduction of the Internet also accelerated the creation of many new dating services with customers numbering in the tens of millions. They all run on essentially the same principles as Operation Match only with more sophistication…and no punch cards.