Old, Weird Tech: Computer Dating of the 1960s

Decades before Match.com and OkCupid there existed a different sort of online interaction that millions participated in.

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The 1960s gave us many gifts. Psychedelia and New Journalism, civil rights and the Velvet Underground, JFK and the sexual revolution. The last gift spawned something else entirely -- the 1960s introduced us to computer dating.

Yes, you read that correctly. Computer dating. Decades before Match.com, OkCupid, and Craigslist there existed a different sort of online interaction. The 1960s sport carried many of the same hazards and thrills as virtual matchmaking today. Computers did exist in the '60s, in some form -- not personal computers, but computers nonetheless. These machines could crunch the numbers on our personalities and spit out intimate matches. Sites like OkCupid perform a similar service now, only with more pictures, interactivity, and complexity.

But in the 1960s, what was known as "computer dating" involved no Internet and often few to no visuals. People submitted their vital stats along with questionnaires by mail. Not e-mail, of course, but old-fashioned, stamp-licking mail. No instant gratification followed. People waited patiently for days, weeks, and months as companies processed their answers on intelligence, attractiveness, quirks, and preferences, and would perhaps find them matches ... the hope for true love. The questionnaire model dated back to the Scientific Marriage Foundation in 1957 and flourished throughout the '60s and '70s. Any time of profound social change calls for a good date.

"Inevitably, the singles game is putting technology to use," LIFE magazine declared back in 1967, "and the computer-dating service is growing as steadily as the price of a share of IBM." The article describes "punchcard-plotted introductions" that cost $5 to $150. It emphasizes the perils that, even now, many ascribe to romance via machine:

Couples who meet by computer tend to be embarrassed and even hostile. Drinking takes care of the embarrassment but not the hostility. "You needed a computer, didn't you? So what's wrong with you?" a man sneers at the end of an evening. Or the girl does. Or both do.

These services expanded along with our society's moral flexibility, technology, and the enthusiasm of young date-hungry entrepreneurs, particularly during the second half of the 1960s. In Thy Neighbor's Wife, journalist Gay Talese described pornographer-to-be Al Goldstein as a subscriber to a "computer dating service" circa the mid-'60s (though apparently the service was, like many during this era, fraudulent). Harvard students founded a landmark computer-dating service around the same time, and as the Crimson reported in 1965, "Their banner reads 'SEX,' their creed is written on the circuits of a computer, and their initial organized uprising is called Operation Match." A black-and-white video celebrates the "computer marriages" emerging from Operation Match by 1968. It cost $3 to sign up, and more than a million romantic souls had responded during the service's first years.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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