Compatible punch cards.                                                          Photographer: Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images
Compatible punch cards.                                                          Photographer: Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images

OKCupid, the online dating service founded by Christian Rudder and several Harvard University classmates, revealed recently that it had, like Facebook, been “experimenting” on its users, in this case by purposely removing photos and deliberately setting up bad matches, among other things.

These aren't the first Harvard students to make news by harnessing computers to foster relationships. Long before Mark Zuckerberg and Christian Rudder, there was Jeff Tarr, David Crump and Vaughan Morrill, founders of “Operation Match.”

It was December 1964; the “hook up culture” was far off in the future. As Tarr, Morrill and other men sat around Winthrop House, they lamented the shortcomings of their main means of meeting women: the blind date and the social mixer.

What, they wondered, if they could harness the awesome, staggering power of the mainframe computer to the task of matchmaking? In short order, the students had joined with a college dropout named Douglas Ginsburg (yes, that Ginsburg -- the 1987 Reagan Supreme Court nominee who dropped out after admitting he smoked pot) and set up “Operation Match.”

The company, like Facebook and OkCupid, was a viral success. According to journalist Dan Slater’s account, the guys sent questionnaires to neighboring schools in New England, promising to match students with compatible dates. Applicants had to pay $3 and answer 135 questions, including “Is extensive sexual activity [in] preparation for marriage, part of growing up?” and “Do you believe in a God that answers prayers?”

The company immediately received 8,000 responses, complete with handwritten instructions. One Harvard male, who sought to satisfy his romantic yearnings and his love of literature, requested “buxom blonds who like poetry.” A Dartmouth man sent this blunt request:: “No dogs please!” And a student at Williams, in rural Massachusetts, observed, with admirable practicality, that “this is the greatest excuse for calling up a strange girl that I’ve ever heard.”

Operation Match wasn't the first such service. That honor goes to two Stanford computer geeks, Phil Fialer and Jim Harvey, who in 1959 got their hands on the university’s much-coveted IBM 650 mainframe as part of a “class project” called the “Happy Families Planning Service.” Their questionnaire, sent to 50 potential couples and then coded on punch cards, was most peculiar. One question asked respondents to select one of the following six categories to describe their religious beliefs: “Quakers and Mormons”; “Protestants and Non-Religious”; “Christians, etc.”; “Catholics”; “Jews”; and “Mystery Cults” (this was California, after all).

It shouldn't be surprising that the project failed to generate any marriages, though both Fialer and Harvey received an “A” in the course. Nor did it go commercial as Operation Match did. By 1966, it had become a huge campus phenomenon, thanks in part to elaborate public relations campaign that included Morrill’s appearance on CBS’s “To Tell the Truth.”

But by this point they had competition in the form of “Contact,” a dating service run by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student named David DeWan. Operating out of a room in his grandparents’ house, DeWan ran a mean, lean operation, hiring no full-time employees, and renting time on a Honeywell 200 computer in the wee hours of the morning, when rates were cheaper.

By all accounts, DeWan was a tragic figure, who put the quest for a better mousetrap ahead of his own happiness. When he founded the company, he had been “going steady” with a girl from Wellesley. The two filled out Contact’s questionnaire to confirm their compatibility. It matched them up, but it also matched DeWan’s girlfriend with a guy at Amherst. She promptly dumped DeWan. “It was very sad,” DeWan told a reporter with the Boston Globe. “But it proved my system worked. It found her a more compatible guy.”

Companies popped up on campuses around the country; others emerged to serve adults of all stripes. There was the Scientific Marriage Institute of New York, which focused on permanent unions; the Scientific Introduction Service, operating out of Michigan, which offered “compatible dates for swinging, stylish young people"; and the University of Wisconsin was home to “Scientific Evaluation of Compatibility Service,” or SECS, pronounced, yes, that way.

But Operation Match remained the most visible of these companies, thanks to various publicity stunts. In the fall of 1966, it pulled together 76 married couples between the ages of 21 and 57, ran them through the computer, and then rematched them with new mates at a party that had the air of a swingers’ convention. All but two of the couples ended up with different, allegedly more compatible mates. And everyone seemed to be rather happy with the outcome, even if it only lasted for an evening. The only exception, the New York Times reported, were the two men matched with their wives. One complained: “Why did it have to happen to us?”

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, computerized dating was here to stay, with services that catered to specific clienteles, including “Jewish Compu-Date,” sponsored by the Atlanta Rabbinical Association to bring together that’s city’s far-flung, otherwise isolated Jewish singles.

But with the spread of computer dating came controversy, too. People complained that the services simply didn’t work, or failed to predict personality conflicts. Worse, fly-by-night companies that took people’s money and then did only the most cursory of computerized matching attracted lawsuits and even attention from state regulators. By 1970, attorneys general of New York and California had charged several of the less-reputable companies with fraud.

But experimenting on subscribers? That is a first.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen Mihm at mihmstep@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.