Yup, there was online dating in the 1960s. Here’s what it was like.

Setting up your online dating profile today doesn’t take a ton of effort. Upload some photos, define yourself in a few sentences, swipe, match, chat, date. But is that an effective way to find true love? Since we’re putting so little into finding a match, are we getting long term relationships or just sex? Vanity Fair’s recent piece Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse, exposed how the abundance of dating apps have made online dating today like ordering food on Seamless, instead your ordering a person.

In our swipe right society it’s refreshing to look back at a simpler time. Before smart phones, selfies and personal computers. It may come as a shock to you that online dating was actually invented as early as the 60s, when computers were about the size of a school bus and women weren’t “supposed” to call men first.

It’s all documented in a fascinating 14-minute documentary released by Five Thirty Eight Life. Here’s what we learned: Jeffrey C. Tarr, David L. Crump and Vaughan Morrill were all classmates at Harvard in the early 1960s and they all had a hard time dating. Freshman girls would always date upper class men, at the time it wasn’t popular or acceptable for people to meet at bars, and although they were surrounded by other colleges in Boston and went to mixers, the seemingly endless possibilities were actually quite limited. So one Saturday night, when these men found themselves drinking alone in their dorm room, they decided to do something, and the first online dating company was born.

Called Compatibility Research Inc. or Operation Match, with the help of Douglas H. Ginsburg, who was a student at Cornell, the men embarked on a social experiment. What happens when you match people based on actual logical compatibility?

The process was simple, they posted in neighboring colleges an ad, “If you are interested in trying something new, send $3 and have a shot at finding true love.” And people did, filling out a questionnaire twice, once for them and once for their ideal date. Questions ranged from “What’s your religion and grade point average” to “Do you believe in a God who answers prayer” and “How important is it that your date shares your attitudes towards sex?”

Once all the questions were answered, subjects would fold up their envelope and send it via snailmail to a place where it was key punched. Operation Match would then go through these submissions making sure the matches lived in the same area and had other things in common.

After couples were matched, both matches would get a letter in the mail with the names and contact for five matches. But since this was a time when girls didn’t call guys, there was a lot of waiting on the female end. Then the men would call the women, but it wasn’t a cold call, there were no emojis or “hi,” just a simple, “hey the computer put us together.”

Instead of today—where there’s a quick text exchange, followed by a “do you want to grab a drink?”—back then couples would talk for hours on the phone and then go out on a proper date. Yeah, no “Netflix and chill.” And it seemed to work. In the video you’ll meet three couples, still together today who met through Operation Match. From 1965 to 1968 the program matched over 100,000 people, but then faded away and was bought in 1968 to help pair roommates instead. None of the creators of Operation Match are still in the online dating business, anymore, but they’re still game to talk about the good old days.

In plenty of ways we’ve advanced since the ’60s—and not just technologically. Online dating isn’t exclusively heterosexual and cisgender, and women aren’t pressured to abide by outdated gender expectations. Still, there were things about Operation Match that worth considering now. To think of how many Tinder Dates you go on only to find out your not at all a good match—because all your decisions are based on a photo and a few text exchanges. What if you were given five matches you were deemed compatible with, no pictures, and nice long phone call? Would we have more of a shot at long-term, successful relationships? If only the Operation Match inventors could invent a time machine so we could travel back to the ’60s and try out their system. In the meantime, watch we have this whole fascinating documentary to keep us wondering.

(Images via FiveThirtyEight video)


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