Computer Dating a la 1965

Do you think of computer dating as a very “today” thing? Like many computing activities, it actually originated years ago and hasn’t changed all that much. I first used a computer dating service in 1965. Here’s the story.

I had dropped out of college, was working as a chemical lab technician, and was sharing a house with 3 friends, two of whom were attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA. One morning, at breakfast before we all took off for the day, Joel pulled out a large paper form with lots of little fill-in boxes on it and a No. 2 pencil. “Liza,” he said, “we’re all applying for this computer dating thing. Andy will read you the questions and I’ll fill in the answers for you. It matches you up with guys you’ll be compatible with. I tried it, it’s fun.” “OK,” say I, “how does it work?”

My roommates all worked with computers and explained to me that the form would be automatically read into a big machine that would compare the requirements of all the other applicants. Then it would spit out a list of guys who fit my criteria. (I don’t remember whether gay matches were an option in that era.) This certainly seemed more logical than hoping my mother would introduce me to someone or cruising the local bars (besides, I wasn’t yet 21). I mention that the target computer was “a big machine” because there weren’t any little ones in those days. One roommate, Richard, was actually working for Digital Equipment Corporation, a company that pioneered “minicomputers” but “microcomputers” only existed in science fiction stories.

The multiple choice questions on the form were not surprising: age, physical characteristics, ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, intellectual interests, hobbies, pastimes, sports, etc. There was a section for me and another for the “target”. It never occurred to me that my roommates might not be filling in the answers I gave and I never found out. I wasn’t picky except about education and intellectual interests so I answered “any of the above” for lots of them.

Three dollars and about a week later the results came back: 13 names and phone numbers, 9 of whom I went out with at least once. Most of my “matches” were from outside the US. I don’t know what the matching algorithms were but I suspect that there were a lot of lonely foreign students in male-dominated, high-tech Cambridge. It may be that most of the female applicants were looking for white Americans of a specified religion. It did not occur to me to ask my “matches” what they had put on their forms.

So what has changed? We use online screens now instead of paper to initiate the matching operation. The results come back faster and we can exchange photos online although some services suggest you don’t do that until you get to know the person. We now have the option of using email as well as phone and face-to-face meetings in a neutral setting. Many of us have online personas that can be searched. But the questions are the same and the need for “chemistry” in a real-world, romantic relationship is still there.

IMHO, the most significant shift is that we now have the opportunity to participate in rich online relationships with individuals located around the globe. History gives us many examples of friendships and romances conducted by letter but the timing is very different. And, video technology allows us to simulate an in-person experience that only lacks smell, taste and touch. I hear they’re working on that too.

Oh, you want to know what happened with my nine dates? Six of them were duds and we only met once. One I went out with three or four times but there was neither “chemistry” nor enough common interest for me. As for number 8, I enjoyed hanging out with Basil, a tall, beautiful and very bright Jamaican, for several months but I think he lost interest in me. The last one, Charlie, was actually rooming with the girlfriend of one of my roommates so it’s likely that we would have eventually met even without the computer. Charlie and I hit it off, became lovers and lived together for more than two years. Although our romance ended we remained friends for about 20 years until he passed away unexpectedly in his early 40s.

And those roommates with our crowd from Cambridge? We’re spread across the county now and, you guessed it, we check up on each other via Facebook.

You can read more about early computer dating at http://www.onlinepersonalswatch.com/news/operation-match/

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About lizaloop

Social philosopher, educator, teacher, parent, grandmother, musician, horseback rider, skier, dog owner, writer, trouble-maker, idea generator.

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