Tarr had tapped into a vein of loneliness and frustration at single-sex schools in the Northeast and beyond. “This is the greatest excuse for calling up a strange girl that I’ve ever heard,” wrote a computer dater from Williams in a letter to the company.
“No dogs please!” wrote another from Dartmouth.
“The girl you sent me didn’t have much upstairs,” wrote a third, from Northwestern, “but what a staircase!”
A female computer dater from Connecticut College suspected “that boys don’t level” on their questionnaires. “I was honest with mine,” she reported, “but I wonder if some guys fill out theirs to see if they can get a first-nighter.”
It was clear that Operation Match was going to need a bigger staff. Tarr pulled in another classmate, a chemistry major named David Crump. Then, walking through Cambridge one day, Tarr struck up a conversation with a dropout from Cornell named Douglas Ginsburg. A pot-smoking free spirit looking for a cause, Ginsburg was not yet on his way to becoming a Harvard Law School professor and Supreme Court nominee. “A computer-dating service?” laughed Ginsburg. He signed on right away.
Profits aside, everyone wanted to know the same thing: Did it work? Did the computer really make good matches? “I approve of it as a way to meet people,” said a subscriber from Yale, “although I have no faith in the questionnaire’s ability to match compatible people. The machine has no way of telling whether or not the girl has pizzazz!” By pizzazz, the student referred to that mysterious aspect of romantic connection, chemistry. How could such an elusive quality be quantified?
Tarr made no claims it could. “We’re not trying to take the love out of love,” he told Shalit, “we’re just trying to make it more efficient. We supply everything but the spark.” Operation Match might get 10,000 questionnaires returned from any given geographical area. Tarr and his partners would then do a series of “sorts” — sorting the questionnaires, for instance, according to age, then height, then religion, and so on. After five or six sorts, the pools would become too small to further differentiate. The vast majority of the 150 questions never came into play. Computer dating was about more dates, not better dates.
Harvard being Harvard — a place where students have historically evaded traditional career paths by creating their own jobs — it didn’t take long before Operation Match met its first competitor. In the summer of 1965, David Dewan, an MIT grad, was preparing to enter Harvard Business School. Having followed the success of Operation Match as it was chronicled in the pages of the Harvard Crimson, Dewan thought he could steal some market share.
Over the summer he drafted his own dating questionnaire and taught himself how to write code for the Honeywell 200, a car-sized contraption that, at around 3 in the morning, could be rented for $30 an hour from a small Boston mutual-fund company called Fidelity.
Dewan came to the business with a seriousness that Harvard people associate with their geek rivals at MIT. A rich kid who wore Brooks Brothers and drove a Jaguar, he borrowed $10,000 from his grandfather to start his business. He called the service Eros and its parent company Contact Inc.
Dewan entered the fledgling market with guns blazing, telling the Crimson that Operation Match’s questionnaire was “less sophisticated, appealing to the big, Mid-west universities.” In truth, very little distinguished Contact from Operation Match. Operation Match sold its questionnaires for $3 while Contact charged $4. The questions reflected the politics and preoccupations of the era. Both offered three options for race: Caucasian, Oriental, or Negro. Contact’s questionnaire was more strait-laced, seeking daters’ opinions on whether civil rights laws should be strengthened and, prophetically, whether the computer is invading too many aspects of personal life.
With no full-time employees, Dewan operated Contact out of his grandparents’ home near Cambridge. In one distribution of questionnaires, he drew 11,000 responses at $4 each, or $44,000 in gross profits, more than $250,000 in today’s dollars.
Tarr may have been a jokester, but he wasn’t going to stand by while Dewan cornered the industry that he had pioneered. In retaliation for Dewan’s trash-talking to the Crimson, Operation Match alerted authorities that Dewan intended to paper Harvard Yard with questionnaires for Contact. Things got ugly, fast. On September 29, 1965, campus police collared Dewan for the dubious crime of “distributing questionnaires without a permit.” The next day the Crimson splashed the news across its front page: “University Police Eject Man From Winthrop House.”Continued...