What Computer Dating Looked Like When We First Reported On It In 1971

14 hours ago
Originally published on February 11, 2019 10:07 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sweden's moves toward a cashless economy may offer lessons for what the U.S. will deal with in the future. But now let's take a trip into the past. With Valentine's Day around the corner, we dug into our archives to find the first time NPR ever reported on how people were trying to find a match with help from computers. It was September 1971.

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MIKE WATERS, BYLINE: From National Public Radio in Washington, this is Mike Waters with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

This evening on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the first part of the series on computer dating - we'll hear how this young industry that is the product of our technology has changed in just a few short years.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The series traced the origins of computer dating, and the story might seem familiar if you know how Facebook got started. That was in a Harvard dorm room when then-student Mark Zuckerberg developed a program to rank female classmates based on how attractive they were. Well, NPR reported it was on that same campus that students a few decades earlier - and following similar instincts - launched what became computer dating.

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WATERS: It started back in the mid-1960s, when some students at Harvard University were offered free time on the university computers. They used their knowledge of computer programming to match up men from Harvard with women from Radcliffe. And the Harvard men decided to turn it into a small commercial business.

CORNISH: Before long, computer dating jumped from Harvard to the wider world. Reporter Carol Kadushin told our story.

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CAROL KADUSHIN, BYLINE: When computer dating left the college campus, it developed into two branches, the inexpensive program where an interested applicant fills out a brief questionnaire - basic questions for matching are age, height and race - and sends in the processing fee of anywhere from $3 to $25. In return, he or she receives a list of presumably compatible people.

CORNISH: There was no swiping left or right back then. Applicants dropped those paper questionnaires into the mail. The companies would transfer that data to punch cards or magnetic tape to be run through a mainframe computer, and the results would then be sent back in the mail.

KELLY: But here's one part that might still sound familiar. Back then, people worried that their potential matches might embellish their profiles. The more expensive computer dating programs included background checks for anywhere from $300 to $5,000 extra.

CORNISH: But our report pointed out that some of those expensive computer dating services were no better than the cheap ones. Some background checks were not thorough. That was one hurdle. Another hurdle, the limits of the technology of the time - a man named Owen Rogers (ph) who ran Detroit's computer dating service put it this way.

OWEN ROGERS: When you're using a computer, No. 1, you have to use a program. I've yet to see one that has been a good matching process. If they could find a program that could do the job, possibly yes. But I don't think that they're going to find a program that can do the job at this day and age - maybe a little later on down the line.

KELLY: Well, we are now down the line - way down the line from that reporting series in 1971. There are a number of dating apps now and a number of happy users who can say they have made matches built to last.

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