When Computer Dating Was Mail Order

A couple promoting the Harvard University-based dating service Operation Match.

Atlantic blogger John Hendel reports on the phenomenon of computer dating in the 1960s. These services operated by comparing questionnaires that would-be romancers submitted by mail, returning a list of potential matches some days or weeks later (in a similar fashion to job-matching systems of the era). I've had the computer dating craze of the 1960s on the brain for several years. It's a fascinating phenomenon, but I haven't had the chance to seriously investigate it. Hendel links the growth of computer dating to the growth of “moral flexibility, technology, and the enthusiasm of young date-hungry entrepreneurs.” That seems right. But I think there's more to be said. One curious feature of the boom is that dating services often emerged around universities such as Stanford (see Stewart Gillmor's article on the subject from IEEE Annals and his more personal reminisce in the Stanford Historical Society Journal) The obvious explanation for this is that the universities were where computer resources were available to young single people. But I wonder about the more specific historical context, about the thousands of new students flocking to the booming universities of the Cold War era. Computer dating may have seemed a likely way to find a mate in this brave new world, filled with unfamiliar faces. Beyond this more doubtful hypothesis, it seems certain that the growth of cities and increasing physical mobility have contributed a great deal to the growth of match-making services. Surely the number of people today who rely on third-parties (via the Internet) to find a date or a mate is unprecedented in history (I assert without evidence). This line of though leads me to wonder about the longer history of match-making technologies? Obviously one doesn't need a computer to compare questionnaires and find “matches.” And more qualitative match-making services certainly have a long history. There could be a fascinating history here, at the intersection of social, cultural, and technological change.