A general interest publication and a runner-up to Life, Look magazine was trying to stay on top of the computer revolution when, in the fall of 1965, it spotted a good story coming out of Boston. Two rival companies at Harvard, both student-run, were making money hand over fist by using computers to help students find dates. Look's editors dispatched Gene Shalit, then a 29-year-old culture reporter, to investigate.
The concept of computer dating had taken root at Harvard earlier that year, when a junior math major named Jeff Tarr decided he was fed up with coming home alone from mixers with Radcliffe, the women's college across the way. Despite Tarr's towering stature in the math department, he was, at 5 feet 7 inches, less than a heartthrob. Tarr's eureka moment, like that of so many innovators before and after him, reflected the desperation of a guy who couldn't get a date. That he could also make a fortune by expanding the mating pool from Wheaton to Wellesley, from Pembroke to Mount Holyoke, was an afterthought.
Tarr raised $1,250 and recruited classmate Vaughan Morrill. Tarr wrote a questionnaire that asked students to answer 75 questions about themselves and another 75 about their "ideal date." But Tarr was just a math guy; computer science did not yet exist as a major. So he paid a friend $100 to program an IBM 1401 that would match questionnaires with similar responses.
Tarr and Morrill distributed the questionnaire to Boston-area colleges. Students filled it out and returned it with a $3 subscription fee. Tarr paid "punch-card ladies" to transfer each answer onto Hollerith punch cards that were then run through the 1401. Within days the student would receive a computer printout with the names, phone numbers, addresses, and graduating years of six people. Tarr and Morrill gave their parent company a scientific-sounding name: Compatibility Research Inc. They called the dating service Operation Match.
In March, just weeks before the official launch of Operation Match, Boston Globe reporter Timothy Leland received a tip and rushed over to Tarr's corporate headquarters — dorm room G-35, Winthrop House — where he was greeted by a sign on the door: "YOUR BUSINESS IS OUR PLEASURE. YOUR PLEASURE IS OUR BUSINESS."
Half naked and shaving when Leland barged in, Tarr improvised. Operation Match, he jested, had done a study on which kinds of women preferred which kinds of after-shaves.
"And?" Leland asked.
Tarr explained that Old Spice attracts the all-American ladies, while Royall Lyme gets the preppy types. Fascinated, Leland jotted this down for his article — the first in-depth piece ever produced on the computer-dating industry — which would run under the front-page headline "2 Harvard Men Replacing Cupid With Computer." Jeff Tarr, Leland wrote, was "masterminding the cleverest business enterprise since J.D. Rockefeller invested in oil." His computer, Leland later observed, would "analyze all the personality profiles in a matter of seconds, and match the couples up in less time than it takes to say 'Je t'adore.' "
For virtually all of human history the search for a mate has been predicated on scarcity: One met only so many people in his or her lifetime. They optimized their options within a circumscribed pool, chose someone, settled down, and, in the best of cases, found something they called happiness. Even when "women's lib" came along and the legal and cultural restraints surrounding divorce began to ease in the 1960s and 1970s, making it easier to leave failed relationships, many chose to stick with the devil they knew because of scarcity of compatible mates, believing it was better to be in a so-so relationship than no relationship at all.
But wait. Suppose some Harvard math whiz came along with an idea to harness technology in a way that was so big, so fresh, that it could change the game entirely? Not by solving some riddle of scarcity, but by smashing the whole concept of scarcity to pieces, eradicating its relevancy. Why settle for the smug and entitled "Cliffies," asked the height-challenged Jeff Tarr, when I can meet every girl at every school?
"A computer," Tarr told Leland, "can find the right date for a person in a split second, when it might take him or her three years to do it alone." Leland wanted to know if Tarr planned to run his own questionnaire through the computer. "Darn right I do," said Tarr. "Two or three times at least. That's the beauty of being a company president."
Tarr's idea of computer-aided dating, to use modern parlance, went viral. By the fall of '65, six months after the launch, some 90,000 Operation Match questionnaires had been received, amounting to $270,000 in gross profits, or nearly $2 million in today's dollars. Not bad for a scholarship student from small-town Maine.
Tarr had tapped into a vein of loneliness and frustration at single-sex schools in the Northeast and beyond. "This is the greatest excuse for calling up a strange girl that I've ever heard," wrote a computer dater from Williams in a letter to the company.
"No dogs please!" wrote another from Dartmouth.
"The girl you sent me didn't have much upstairs," wrote a third, from Northwestern, "but what a staircase!"
A female computer dater from Connecticut College suspected "that boys don't level" on their questionnaires. "I was honest with mine," she reported, "but I wonder if some guys fill out theirs to see if they can get a first-nighter."
It was clear that Operation Match was going to need a bigger staff. Tarr pulled in another classmate, a chemistry major named David Crump. Then, walking through Cambridge one day, Tarr struck up a conversation with a dropout from Cornell named Douglas Ginsburg. A pot-smoking free spirit looking for a cause, Ginsburg was not yet on his way to becoming a Harvard Law School professor and Supreme Court nominee. "A computer-dating service?" laughed Ginsburg. He signed on right away.
Profits aside, everyone wanted to know the same thing: Did it work? Did the computer really make good matches? "I approve of it as a way to meet people," said a subscriber from Yale, "although I have no faith in the questionnaire's ability to match compatible people. The machine has no way of telling whether or not the girl has pizzazz!" By pizzazz, the student referred to that mysterious aspect of romantic connection, chemistry. How could such an elusive quality be quantified?
Tarr made no claims it could. "We're not trying to take the love out of love," he told Shalit, "we're just trying to make it more efficient. We supply everything but the spark." Operation Match might get 10,000 questionnaires returned from any given geographical area. Tarr and his partners would then do a series of "sorts" — sorting the questionnaires, for instance, according to age, then height, then religion, and so on. After five or six sorts, the pools would become too small to further differentiate. The vast majority of the 150 questions never came into play. Computer dating was about more dates, not better dates.
Harvard being Harvard — a place where students have historically evaded traditional career paths by creating their own jobs — it didn't take long before Operation Match met its first competitor. In the summer of 1965, David Dewan, an MIT grad, was preparing to enter Harvard Business School. Having followed the success of Operation Match as it was chronicled in the pages of the Harvard Crimson, Dewan thought he could steal some market share.
Over the summer he drafted his own dating questionnaire and taught himself how to write code for the Honeywell 200, a car-sized contraption that, at around 3 in the morning, could be rented for $30 an hour from a small Boston mutual-fund company called Fidelity.
Dewan came to the business with a seriousness that Harvard people associate with their geek rivals at MIT. A rich kid who wore Brooks Brothers and drove a Jaguar, he borrowed $10,000 from his grandfather to start his business. He called the service Eros and its parent company Contact Inc.
Dewan entered the fledgling market with guns blazing, telling the Crimson that Operation Match's questionnaire was "less sophisticated, appealing to the big, Mid-west universities." In truth, very little distinguished Contact from Operation Match. Operation Match sold its questionnaires for $3 while Contact charged $4. The questions reflected the politics and preoccupations of the era. Both offered three options for race: Caucasian, Oriental, or Negro. Contact's questionnaire was more strait-laced, seeking daters' opinions on whether civil rights laws should be strengthened and, prophetically, whether the computer is invading too many aspects of personal life.
With no full-time employees, Dewan operated Contact out of his grandparents' home near Cambridge. In one distribution of questionnaires, he drew 11,000 responses at $4 each, or $44,000 in gross profits, more than $250,000 in today's dollars.
Tarr may have been a jokester, but he wasn't going to stand by while Dewan cornered the industry that he had pioneered. In retaliation for Dewan's trash-talking to the Crimson, Operation Match alerted authorities that Dewan intended to paper Harvard Yard with questionnaires for Contact. Things got ugly, fast. On September 29, 1965, campus police collared Dewan for the dubious crime of "distributing questionnaires without a permit." The next day the Crimson splashed the news across its front page: "University Police Eject Man From Winthrop House."
Dewan's enthusiasm was unchecked. "The way I envision things, in 50 years computers may well have reduced our work week to zero hours," he told the Sarasota Journal. "We'll date through computers, mate through computers, select our home with the help of computers, and plan our recreation with computers. It will be a fantastic time and my company and I hope to be a large part of it." He was right on all counts save the one.
Thirty years later, online dating would encounter a strong stigma; to "date online" suggested an inability to meet people in real life. But in the '60s, when Tarr and Dewan brought the first incarnations of computer dating to college kids, stigma didn't surround the medium. Sure, people debated whether Operation Match and Contact worked, whether the chance of meeting someone you liked "via the punch cards" was any better than trolling at a mixer. Yet on campus there was little embarrassment or shame.
For one thing, a celebrated singles culture was emerging outside Harvard's walls. In urban areas across the country, the energetic young were spending disposable income in "singles bars." City papers announced upcoming singles events. The New York Review of Books, known for its highbrow readers, began its famous personals column in 1965. Developers constructed youth-oriented apartment complexes. Guidebooks helped the unattached navigate the scene. Rebelling against their parents' suburban sprawl and soulless conformity, youth of the 1960s saw staying single as an exciting adventure for those up to the challenge.
But even while Dewan turned out to be a visionary, his first taste of utopia was bittersweet. "Back then I was going out with a girl from Wellesley," he recalled four decades later. "I gave her a free questionnaire, because she helped me distribute in the dorms there. When we ran it through the computer, she and I matched. That was exciting! But I forgot that she also received five other matches, including a guy from Amherst, whom she later dumped me for."
Adapted from Love in the Time of Algorithms, copyright © 2013, Dan Slater,
reprinted by arrangement with Current, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.