Online Dating Is 50 Years Old: The Humble Beginnings

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Love, Self

Match.com, OKCupid and eHarmony were all inspired by the New York-based Project TACT.

Who knew that online dating got its start in the 1960s on New York's Upper East Side?

The first-ever computer matchmaking system was designed by New York accountant Lewis Altfest and his friend Robert Ross. The two were inspired by the Parker Pen Pavilion they came across at New York's World Fair in 1964, where a giant computer selected pen pals for anyone who wanted one. All they had to do was "fill out a questionnaire, feed it into the machine, and almost instantly received a card with the name and address of a like-minded participant in some far-flung locale—your ideal match," according to The New Yorker. Sound familiar? 

Altfest and Ross wanted people to be able to find matches closer to home, so they teamed up with some Harvard students working toward the same goal and in a year they had a prototype: Project TACT, New York City's first computer-dating service. Every user had to pay $5 and was asked to answer several multiple-choice questions. These questions assessed the user's likes and dislikes, and TACT "transferred the answers onto a computer punch card and fed the card into an I.B.M. 1400 Series computer, which then spit out your matches: five blue cards, if you were a woman, or five pink ones, if you were a man."

At first, TACT was restricted to people living on the Upper East Side, and over 50,000 New Yorkers subscribed to the online service. Eventually, just as Mark Zuckerberg expanded Facebook, TACT expanded to the rest of New York. Altfest and Ross started to organize singles parties so that their users could interact and get to know each other better. The two saw great success from their site, but after Ross met his wife, a reporter who initially set out to interview him about the project, he got bored of it all, packed it up and moved to London. Ross wrote off computer matchmaking as a "gimmick and a fad." Well, as we all know today, that's not exactly true. Complete This Sentence: I'm Single Because...

But is online dating still effective, almost 50 years after its humble beginnings?

Nick Paumgarten, author of the above New Yorker article, investigates this question in his book "Online Dating: Sex, Love, and Loneliness." He doesn't think romantic love necessarily grows from a "mutual interest and enthusiasm for spicy food and Fleetwood Mac," but he might be biased as he met his wife without having to sign up for Match.com or eHarmony.

Helen Fisher, a research professor at Rutgers and a renowned scholar of human attraction and attachment, argues that meeting someone in a bar is more artificial than meeting someone online. "We've come to believe that this is the way to court. But that couldn't be further from the truth. What's natural is knowing a few fundamental things about someone before you meet," she says.

Are you glad online dating is alive and well almost 50 years later? Do you think it's a fad or that it's not going away anytime soon?