by Marie Hicks
A working-class woman from East London invented computer dating more than half a century ago.
Scrolling through pictures, swiping right or left on a touchscreen, effortless and nearly instant contact in the event of a match… these are the experiences that define contemporary computer dating. But computer dating has been around for far longer than Tinder, Grindr, or even the personal computer.
The first computer dating systems looked something like this: Your preferences were written down, usually in questionnaire form. They were punched onto cards. You received a printout with addresses, so you could write to your matches. Or perhaps, if you were lucky, a phone number. No pictures, and no information about their preferences, were included.
The standard history of computer dating claims that it was invented, like so many other things, at Harvard University. By young people, of course, who were definitely men and, it seems to go without saying, white. In the 1960s, a computer dating service called Operation Match appeared to take the world by storm. It began by matching up students at Harvard, and then quickly moved on to advertising and selling its services nationwide—much like OkCupid and Facebook (which began life as Facemash, a Hot or Not knockoff) did decades later.
In popular lore, Operation Match and its founders created computer dating. This narrative gives the impression that it was young men like these, and their randy, envelope-pushing genius, that caused us to think seriously about the up-till-then preposterous idea of having sex with the help of cold, impersonal machines for the first time. As anybody who has ever seen a picture of an old vibrator in an early 20th century Sears Roebuck catalog knows, this was certainly not the case. But what many do not know is that the accepted history of computer dating is not true. Or, to put it more charitably: it's a confection.
The prevailing account of computer dating’s origins is the same kind of stylized informational portrait that you might put up on an online dating website. It hides a lot and only shows the things that you think people want to see. Brilliant young men of privileged backgrounds taking a risk by applying machines to a realm about as far away from cold, hard, technological logic as you could get—this makes for a good story, and one which we are primed to hear, because it plays to our cultural expectations. Yet the real story, warts and all, is much more interesting. And it helps us understand why computer dating is what it is today—why we love it, loathe it, need it, and fear it in nearly equal measure.
In 1953 a young woman named Joan Ball stepped out of a mental hospital in England. Her mother had beaten her and ended up abandoning her—to say nothing of verbally and psychologically abusing her. When she ended up in the hospital, she found more of the same.
In an era before mental illness was well-understood, and when young women were routinely incarcerated in mental hospitals for everything from sexual misbehavior to hysteria, many hospitals meant to serve the needs of the mentally ill were instead warehouses for people who—ill or not—had somehow stepped out of the bounds of social norms. Joan suffered physical abuse at the hands of her mother, who, it seems clear, was mentally ill herself. After struggling for years with a difficult home life, it was Joan’s eventual refusal to take further abuse that caused her mother to involuntarily commit her. Yet the hospital was so bad that once there, all she wanted was to go home. When she finally got out, however, there was no home for her to return to: she was no longer welcome in her parents’ home, and likely would not have wanted to go back even if they had agreed to take her.
Joan left the hospital disoriented and disheartened. At nineteen, she felt like her life might be over before it started, forever marked by the stigma of having been involuntarily committed. Fortunately, a work-placement program run by the hospital helped her get a job, and though she couldn’t return home, her Aunt Maud and Uncle Ted took her in.
The road ahead would not be easy. Always the class clown at school, Joan knew it was better to hide her insecurities and weaknesses than to ask for help. Joan could not read easily or write well, nor could she figure out numbers and arithmetic. She was smart but extremely dyslexic, at a time when dyslexia was mostly unknown—people called her stupid instead, if they had the chance. So Joan made sure they never did. Hiding her disability as she started work, Joan pulled herself up by her bootstraps, asking help from no one.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the culture of Britain was bottled-up and buttoned-down. The so-called “swinging Sixties” notwithstanding, London was a conservative place where women were not allowed to wear trousers to work without causing a scandal. Miniskirts might be all right, but letting women wear men's clothes or do men's work—running a business, for instance, or rising into management—was still outside the realm of respectability, and usually outside the realm of possibility, for most women.
This was why, after a few years working as a shop girl, Joan decided that she'd had enough. As a transitional move, she took a job at a "marriage bureau" (think non-computerized dating service) and, to her surprise, found that she had a great knack for pairing people up. A “people person” and quick study when it came to character, Joan found that when trying to make matches you didn't ask people what they wanted in another person—you asked them what they didn't want. The rest was negotiable. Within a few years, Joan decided to start her own marriage bureau.
Across the pond, at about the same time, the United States was undergoing a sexual revolution of its own. And, like the British one, its results for women were uneven. Yes, they now had the freedom of the birth control pill and the sexual empowerment of the miniskirt. But in many ways, women were objects, not subjects, of this new sexual paradigm shift.
Women's bodies were even more likely to be represented as sex objects in advertisements or considered sex objects in their relationships. Suddenly, such behavior on the part of men was no longer considered boorish but in vogue and liberating. Hugh Hefner had made a career of acting like a boyish rake while being a full-grown man. Though some people were disgusted by this cultural turn, that disgust only fueled Hefner’s appeal in the eyes of young men looking to escape straight-laced suburbia and get what they thought the world owed them. This was the cultural message that many young men—and young women—were receiving from all sides. By the 1960s, Playboy was even on the shelves of the Harvard library.
As Playboy arrived at Harvard, three undergraduates were hatching a plan to score women without all the hassle of getting to know them first. Jeff Tarr, Dave Crump, and Vaughan Morrill (along with a Cornell dropout named Doug Ginsberg) had come to the conclusion that college mixers were "a particular social evil"—awkward events that were half cocktail party, half dance, and often all disappointment. What could be done to short-circuit this painful process of meeting women?
One way would’ve been to integrate Harvard’s undergraduate spaces. In the 1960s, Harvard remained an all-male institution, with Radcliffe College as its all-female counterpart. Harvard students and “Cliffies” took classes together, but women were banned from Harvard’s undergraduate library and its dormitories. Even the dining halls were restricted: women could only enter escorted, and only at certain times.
But these three young Harvard men were opposed to integration. After all, that would just make the indignity of the coed mixer a daily occurrence. They needed to find another solution.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
Despite being dyslexic, Joan Ball—like many smart people with disabilities—was extremely good at running a business. Her new marriage bureau flourished, even though the early 1960s was a difficult time for such an undertaking. So suspicious of sexual impropriety was “straight” society that most people assumed marriage bureaus were fronts for prostitution—companies that matched men and women for a fee sounded awfully suspect.
For this reason, Joan had a devil of a time advertising her new endeavor. No respectable newspapers wanted to publish ads for this unseemly type of establishment. So Joan used her creativity and went one better than print media. The people likely to use her service would already be somewhat edgy, and somewhat marginalized, so why not meet them where they were? That was how, in the mid-1960s, her ads ended up sailing across the airwaves, over the water, and illegally coming into the United Kingdom.
In the 1960s, all news media—and, by extension, entertainment—was regulated by the British government. In part an artifact of the war, and in part the historical result of a strong centralized government, media regulation restricted not just what was said on the BBC, but also what was sung and played. This meant no rock 'n' roll on the radio—or anything else that would be offensive to the (imagined) British public.
So an enterprising group of young people decided to set up their own radio stations and play the music they wanted to hear. These illegal pirate radio stations operated in defiance of the BBC, which put them at risk of being shut down by the government. This was how they ended up on boats off the coast of the British Isles, broadcasting from international waters.
The "pop pirates," as they were called, transmitted from rickety ships that floated back and forth in the English Channel—sometimes just barely. Their weak signals (stronger at night due to lower interference) reached the radio sets of young and old Britons hungry for a new sound. The pirates’ broadcasts didn't come for free, however. They needed funding to stay afloat—pun intended—and the best way to earn money was to advertise. And so they were more than happy to take Joan’s advertisements for a service that, if anything, matched their sensibilities and worldview.
Advertising with the pop pirates made a business that could've seemed like a sad last resort for the lovelorn seem new, edgy, and exciting. Joan’s business began to grow. But before long, it became clear that bespoke matchups couldn’t keep pace with her growing customer base. She needed something else.
Back at Harvard, the young men were cooking up an idea for a business. Or rather, copying one. They had heard about computer dating systems in continental Europe. In a few Scandinavian countries, enterprising men and women with access to computers—often time-shared ones at local universities—had been arranging events where people were matched up according to their interests by computer, and then invited to a dance to meet their matches.
What if they did the same, but nixed the dance? They called their venture “Operation Match.” All they had to do was find a computer, and in the era of time-sharing, this wasn’t hard. Mainframes were huge and expensive, but they operated on a pay-to-play model. Timesharing allowed people to buy time to run their programs on a computer that they never would have been able to afford otherwise. (Much like we use the cloud today to do things that would be impossible using only the limited computing infrastructure that we personally own.)
The three young men could outsource the coding of the program, and then buy time on a mainframe to run it. (Interestingly, when interviewed years later, none of the Operation Match founders could recall the name of the freelance programmer they actually hired to write the program, and as a result, there is no way of telling how—or if—the program actually worked.) They would distribute questionnaires about romantic and social preferences to their fellow students, then hire a team of “secretaries” to transfer the information onto punch cards to input the data into the computer. Finally, they would use their program to match customers up with each other.
Because it was Harvard, this seemed scampish and irrepressible rather than crude and sleazy. After all, if Harvard students were doing it, it must be smart—and it certainly couldn't be disreputable. Their endeavor attracted publicity more because of who they were than because of what they were doing. The fledgling business got press not only from the campus newspaper and other local news sources—it also received free national advertising on CBS television, thanks to a fellow student’s family connection with the producer of the quiz show To Tell The Truth.
But, to tell the truth, long before Operation Match ever ran its first match-up program, Joan Ball had come to the conclusion that computers were the way of the future in dating. And not because there were too few prospects, but because there were too many.
She needed help bringing people together in a logical way, at a large scale, so that they could go off and do illogical things at a small scale. She needed to balance the personal and the impersonal, the rational and the romantic, in order to make it work. So she started asking people to write down what they didn't want—this time in a more rigid format that could be quantified. The rest, after all, remained negotiable. Despite the idea that computer dating was somehow “revolutionary” or only for the young, it was divorcees, widowers, and older unmarried people who mostly answered her call.
In 1964, Joan ran the first successful commercial computer dating match-up in either the UK or the US without all the fanfare later attached to Operation Match—but with more real-world success. Joan also took advantage of time-shared computer resources to run her program but, as in the case of Operation Match, the name of the programmer who coded it has been lost.
Yet Joan created the program, in the sense that she designed it and determined the logical flow of how it worked. It would not focus on matching people up through their similarities, but rather according to what they did not want. In other words, her program took strong negative feelings into account first when determining matches.
It seemed to work. In fact, Joan’s first run at computer dating was so commercially successful that she immediately changed the name of her business from the Eros Friendship Bureau to the St. James Computer Dating Service. The name change trumpeted the importance of computing to her service at a time when this sort of futuristic take on romantic match-ups could still well have been a business risk.
By 1965, she had changed the name again to fully reflect her computer-centric model: Com-Pat, short for “computerized compatibility,” was born. Joan initially ran what she called the “Com-Pat I” program, the first iteration of the software. It was successful, but like any good systems analyst, she saw room for improvement. By 1970 “Com-Pat II” was using better data, a larger user pool, and incorporating what Ball had learned from tweaking version 1.0 over the course of several years.
About a year after Ball began her computer dating service, Operation Match ran its first program to match up men and women. The many college students who applied, both at Harvard and at other universities, received letters with the names and contact information of all of their matches. But Operation Match was unsustainable. Even with the free national publicity they had gotten, the three undergrads had underestimated the amount of work, time, and trouble that the business would require.
Getting women by computer was a lot harder than they had hoped. Soon it wasn't fun anymore. As the shock value wore off, and Operation Match became just another business, its reason for existing—to find its founders dates—evaporated. It shut down after a few years, and the young men moved on to other pursuits more in line with their middle-class upbringings and their Harvard pedigrees.
Before they closed Operation Match, however, a visitor from the UK heard about them. John Patterson had recently graduated from the University of London with a degree in mechanical engineering. Unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, he left England for America, and while visiting friends at Harvard, he learned about computer dating. It might've been Operation Match, or it might've been another computer dating service that had sprung into existence on campus at about the same time. Nevertheless, Patterson was hooked. He knew what he wanted to do now and he felt sure he could make a lot of money doing it.
Sex Ex Machina
The 1960s had been good for Joan Ball, but by the early 1970s, things started to fall apart. Ball was a working-class girl from hardscrabble East London, and lacked the safety net that her more affluent contemporaries enjoyed. With no one to bail her out in times of scarcity, little stood between success and disaster.
The UK was in an increasingly grim economic situation. The pound had been devalued several times, and despite assurances from the government that the economy was on the mend, it didn't feel that way to most workers or small-business owners. Wracked by national strikes and widespread discontent, the nation literally shut down for a time when coal miners’ work stoppages resulted in such a shortage of fuel that neither government nor industry could function.
In the midst of this, Com-Pat’s telephone number got misprinted in the telephone directory, which severely damaged the business until the mistake could be corrected. Worse yet, one of the major newspapers that carried Com-Pat’s ads suddenly decided to change its advertising policy and drop them. So imagine Joan's horrified surprise when she entered the London Tube one day to see ads for a computer dating service plastered on the train. A new company called Dateline had burst on the scene—and computer dating was about to change dramatically.
John Patterson made a big splash with Dateline. He had several advantages: he both learned from his predecessors’ mistakes and benefited from their innovations. By the time Dateline came along, companies like Com-Pat had already softened the resistance of advertisers to the idea of computer dating and helped sell the public on the concept.
Patterson wasted no time in using this cultural capital, immediately positioning his service as a kind of sex ex machina. While Com-Pat ran advertisements that promised people would meet their “true match,” Dateline ran ads that positioned their service as an “adventure.” Patterson’s questionnaires had more to do with sexual preferences and sexual compatibility than Compat’s personality-based approach.
When he got flack, Patterson doubled down, creating another service that was even more sexually explicit in its questions. That service asked users how sexually experienced they required their partners to be, along with which specific sex acts customers had engaged in previously, and which ones they wished to perform in the future.
Yet when asked for details on how his service worked, Patterson shrugged off the question. He told the London Times in 1972 that even if his clients had nothing else in common, at least they had in common the fact that they had all joined Dateline. But had they? In 1969 he was arrested and convicted of fraud and conspiracy for trying to sell a list of young women to men who were looking for prostitutes. Patterson assured the men that all of these women were "good to go." Whether these women had signed up for his service, or whether he had simply collected their names out of the phone book, was unclear. What was clear was that the women did not know he was using their names in this fashion.
Though Patterson was convicted and somewhat disgraced, this setback didn't deter him. But it didn't seem to teach him much, either. Throughout its existence, a veneer of sleaze plagued Dateline. Women customers often complained of being matched up with men they had nothing in common with, or whose questionnaire preferences were in direct opposition to theirs. This was ironic, considering how thorough Patterson’s questionnaire was—it asked people for information that would be "Big Brother’s Dream,” in the words of the Times of London. By contrast, Joan Ball’s more conservative and much shorter questionnaire seemed to result in better matches.
Ball had continued to struggle as Britain became mired in the economic stagnation of the 1970s. Her business, which focused on a smaller, more curated pool of users than Patterson’s, became increasingly hard to sustain. Patterson was a shrewd businessman and a smart promoter, and Dateline grew by leaps and bounds after its initial troubles. Ball, meanwhile, was sidelined with both personal problems and debt. Soon, she wanted out.
Ball and Patterson had met each other—they had been on television together and were always interviewed for the same newspaper stories about computer dating. Ball was Patterson’s only real competitor, and he knew her business was sound. So when Ball called Patterson one day in 1974 and offered him the opportunity to buy her business on the condition that he pay the £2000 of debt that Com-Pat had accrued as part of the deal, Patterson took a taxi across London in a flash to sign the papers.
All’s Well That Ends
From there, Ball went on to other pursuits and much self-reflection. Though she had run a business to make other people happy, she wasn't very happy herself. Finally diagnosed late in life with dyslexia, she felt relieved to know her inability to write or to do math wasn't a character flaw. Still, she felt as though she had spent her life hiding her shortcomings. She had been locked in an "emotional dungeon” of her own making, as she put it, even while she ran a business that helped other people escape theirs. Ever independent, and refusing to marry despite having long romantic relationships with men, Ball was the prototypical "new woman.” Unfortunately for her, she came on the scene about a decade before women like her were culturally accepted.
Patterson, for his part, continued on to great success. To this day, Dateline is the longest-running computer dating service in the Anglo-American world. When Patterson died he was a millionaire many times over, and had been married several times. It was one of his ex-wives who found him in his bathtub, dead of complications related to alcoholism, in 1997 at the age of fifty-two.
Good Ol’ Fashioned Computer Dating
From Joan Ball to the Operation Match partners to John Patterson, the real story of computer dating is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The most successful computer dating entrepreneurs understood that their businesses entrenched existing norms rather than overturned them. Ball’s Com-Pat succeeded early on in large part because it did not push people outside of their comfort zone—it simply gave them what they wanted and expected in a more efficient way. Likewise, Patterson’s Dateline came on the scene at a time in the swinging Sixties and Seventies when people were already apt to be more adventurous—and open to accepting a higher level of risk in their dating lives.
Mainframes made matches but they also made mincemeat of people’s hopes, in much the same way that apps and online dating sites do today. One 1960s-era computer dating service sent its own employees out on dates with women, and had the men propose to their unsuspecting marks, because the company’s business model did not require women to pay until after getting a marriage proposal. Within the past few years, OkCupid has admitted to experimenting on its users, matching them up randomly in order to see if the company’s algorithm actually worked any better than random pairings.
Earlier computer dating companies were the subject of numerous complaints to the British fair trading practices bureau, as well as to American better business bureaus. Complainants, who were mostly women, reported that computer dating services did not work, or that they took their money without sending them out on dates, or that they intentionally matched up incompatible people just for profit. There were also, of course, more serious charges that involved physical and sexual assault. Technology is only ever as good as the social context that creates it—and sometimes it is much worse.
The most revolutionary elements of dating technologies—like instantaneous online communication or millions-deep user pools—did not come until much later. But this mattered little since these innovations still masked socially regressive norms. Ball’s service explicitly did not match up people of different races or religions. Patterson’s service sometimes did, but only due to “glitches” in the software. It often provoked customer complaints. Today, computer dating is still mired in the social strictures that govern “real-life” dating—most online dating sites focus on matching like with like and many even collect homogeneous user groups (think eHarmony.com) to further ensure that outcome.
In that sense, early computer dating has much in common with today’s technologies. The birth of computer dating didn’t demolish social conventions so much as it reinscribed them into a new technological order. Heteronormativity, sexism, racism, classism, and capitalism have played a much larger role in computer matchmaking’s history than technological breakthroughs.
The fact that these aspects of computer dating’s origins have been largely submerged says as much about what we want as about what the technology’s pioneers actually did. We see early computer dating as quaint, impossibly utopian, or revolutionary not because it was, but because we want it to be. Seeing it this way helps us maintain the fiction that technology, rather than law or government, is the most important factor in creating social change.
Like our online matches, we want our history not to upset our expectations or our worldview. We want progress to be the result of discrete inventions, rather than the outcome of the messy process of trying to integrate the technical with the social. We wish computer dating would deliver on its promise to solve one of life’s great struggles. But as anyone who has ever shopped for companionship by computer knows, the truth always leads somewhere different than the fiction invited us to go.
Knowing the real history of computerized dating helps us see that this messiness is nothing new: using a computer to solve loneliness was always fraught and complicated. Perhaps this makes us feel—as we sweatily swipe left on another face in the wee hours of the morning—that we aren't so alone after all. We are not living through a disruption or witnessing a break from the past so much as we are participants in a longer techno-emotional history that existed before we were born and will continue after we are dead. Computer dating may seem new, but in fact it has been around, warts and all, for more than half a century now. It’s time we updated its profile a bit.
Marie Hicks is a historian of technology and a professor working on the intersection of gender, sexuality, technology, and power. Her new book from MIT Press, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing (2017), explains why gender discrimination wrecks economies. Read more at mariehicks.net.