Electronic Matchmaking Before the Internet

This is a fascinating essay from today’s Wall Street Journal — about a computer matchmaking project in 1965.

The piece is interesting because of its historical content, but it also resonates with me because of the way my husband and I met: through personals, in 1984. It sounds so archaic now: We both placed ads in the Des Moines Register (I lived in Des Moines; he lived in Ames, which is about 40 miles north of DM).

This project involved writing the ad, contacting the newspaper, paying for the ad, and then receiving from the newspaper’s advertising department a big envelope full of replies. And then deciding who to contact, and writing letters in reply, mailing them, waiting for response.

It was so — drawn out and so, well, personal: All those handwritten letters from respondents. (*1)

My husband’s ad and mine launched a bizarre chain of events: We answered each other’s ads; realized the other was a person someone else had already tried to set each other up with; another set of letters crossed in the mail because of that realization, as did the letters we’d written in reply to the letters written in reply to the ad. (If you can follow that…)

You get the drift. Wierd. (*2)

Anyway, I have no real point here except that I’m fascinated to discover that 20 years earlier, a group of people at Harvard attempted a form of what we know think of as electronic matchmaking. I think, based on the author’s description of that effort, that I’m glad I used pen-and-ink. If nothing else, I had a hell of a lot more control over the outcome than her mother did.

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*1: My big envelope of replies was heavy on responses with “drawer numbers” as the return address, “drawer numbers” being the address of men at the state penitentiary.

*2: By the time I realized how many weird coincidences were involved, I had no desire to go on a “date” with the guy. It sounded too much like a recipe for disaster…. And yet, here he and I are, bearing down on the 25th anniversary of that first date. Which, to make things weird beyond belief, consisted of us seeing the film “Liquid Sky,” which, let me say for the record, is absolutely not a movie you want to see with someone you don’t know.

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