Skip to main content

The Love Machine

June 2024
3min read

Forty years ago a pair of college students conjured up the earliest form of computer dating

Online matchmaking services, such as Match.com and eHarmony , today attract millions of users willing to fill out questionnaires—and hand over cash—in the hope of finding love. Can computers really play Cupid? A lot of people seem to think so; eHarmony claims that its service has led to some 10,000 marriages since 2001. But the concept of using computers to smooth the path of romance is far from new. It was hatched by two undergraduates during a bull session at Harvard University in 1965.

“I had the idea that there might be a way to look at the characteristics of males and females to find out what couples might be compatible with each other,” says Vaughan Morrill. He talked to his classmate Jeff Tarr. “We were alone on a Saturday night, and we were drinking, and we came up with the idea of a computer dating system,” Tarr says.

The two were unlikely visionaries—just kids looking for something fun to do, and maybe make a few bucks doing it. “I don’t think either one of us was doing this as a career,” says Morrill, but inspiration took hold. They quickly came up with a questionnaire to use for matching people up. Eventually it ran several pages, asking everything from vital statistics (height, weight, age) to what a person’s reactions would be to hypothetical, and awkward, situations. Here’s one question:

“Your roommate gets you a blind date for the big dance. Good-looking, your roommate says. When you meet your date, you are sure it’s your roommate who is blind—your date is friendly, but embarrassingly unattractive. You:

  1. suggest going to a movie instead.
  2. monopolize your roommate’s date, leaving your roommate with only one noble alternative …
  3. dance with your date, smiling weakly, but end the evening as early as possible.
  4. act very friendly the whole time and run the risk of getting trapped into a second date.

Tarr found a computer science student in a Harvard math class and paid him $100 to write the programming code to help match up questionnaires that had complementary answers. The two students formed a company, Compatibility Research Inc., and they named their service Operation Match. The nascent business rented time on a room-size IBM computer on the Harvard campus. This was expensive, but the giant computer also provided Operation Match with an air of credibility and a powerful marketing tool. After all, the very idea of using computers was considered cutting edge in 1965.

David Crump, another Harvard undergraduate, who became vice president of the company, says that the image of computers worked both ways. “There was this notion that a computer was not romantic, and it takes all the romance out,” he says. “I think of that as kind of a silly reason, because it didn’t purport to be anything other than a tool.” And the tool seemed to work. “The science of attraction is boringly simple and not very pleasant to contemplate,” says Crump. “We like people who are familiar, who are physically attractive, who have attitudinal similarity, and who like us back.”

The human element, though, added a chaotic factor that no amount of technology could overcome. “The questionnaires evolved, but we always had questions about ‘How good-looking are you?’” says Crump. “And ugly people would say they were good-looking, and good-looking people would say they were ugly.”

But the innovators knew they had something. “I think we ended up with about 7,800 respondents, and the first time we went out as far as Vassar and Smith and [Mount] Holyoke,” says Tarr. Soon the questionnaires were pouring into the company’s Cambridge post-office box, every one with a three-dollar matchmaking fee enclosed. Operation Match soon extended to several more areas, mostly near college campuses, nationwide. “The trip to the mailbox every morning was an exciting event,” says Crump.

Morrill left the company, but Tarr forged ahead. “Because it was my senior year, I didn’t go to any classes, because I was an honor student at Harvard and you could get away with it.” He appeared on several national television programs, including “The Tonight Show” and “Today.”

In its original incarnation, Operation Match proved no more lasting a phenomenon than Nehru jackets or Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. By the third year its popularity had waned considerably. “I think a lot of people thought it was fun to try once,” says Tarr. So the company was sold. Morrill went on to a 31-year career as a science teacher in St. Louis. Crump is now a law professor at the University of Houston, and Tarr became the chairman of a New York risk-arbitrage firm.

But it wasn’t a mere fad. The core innovation, using technology to match up strangers via questionnaires, was far ahead of its time. With the popularization of the personal computer in the early 1980s, people began to see computers less as inscrutable automatons and more as everyday tools. It’s no surprise that the Internet gave rise to a new wave of computer-dating services mimicking the Operation Match model, which today are far more advanced, if not much more successful, than those of 40 years ago.

—David Rapp

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.

Donate