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Before Tinder, there was Dateline

Before Tinder, there was Dateline

An early computer dating service turned Cupid into an algorithm. The idea changed our love lives forever

An early computer dating service turned Cupid into an algorithm. The idea changed our love lives forever

Zoe Strimpel | April 16th 2020

In 1966 John Patterson went to visit some friends in America and came home with a business idea. Patterson was a bon-vivant entrepreneur who loved the company of women and this idea – a dating service – held personal appeal to him. He had observed the workings of Operation Match, a computer dating service started at Harvard in 1965 by two undergraduates, that paired students together for dates for $3 a pop. Students filled in questionnaires which were processed by an IBM 1401 – a hulking, five-tonne machine described as “the great God computer” – before receiving the names and telephone numbers of their matches in the post.

Patterson, whose previous businesses included selling candles, used cars and eggs dusted with feathers in order to make them look fresh, saw potential for a similar system to find success among Britain’s swelling population of singletons, which was rising because of newly relaxed divorce laws and the introduction of the Pill. That same year, Dateline, which would become Britain’s biggest and best-known computer dating service and the pre-internet answer to Tinder, was born. “He managed to negotiate a deal with IBM to rent this computer,” his widow Sandy Nye recalled when we met to discuss Dateline in Rochester, Kent, in south-east England. “It was enormous, it was absolutely gigantic. Three big towers, and tapes whizzing round, and the main computer would have taken up most of this wall.” 

Computer love A Dateline questionnaire

Dateline worked as follows: singles would write to Dateline requesting a two-page questionnaire, which the company claimed was written by psychological experts. It invited form-fillers to answer questions on topics such as “Yourself”, “What You’re Looking For” and “Personality”. Singles were also asked to “turn six squares into a picture” by using a pen or pencil to turn a series of shapes into an image that would “show up the personal differences which make each one of us into a separate unique individual”. Dotted with machine-readable hole punches, the returned questionnaires would be fed into the computer to be read by an algorithm (the workings of which remain obscure). Six matches would be spat out and their contact information forwarded on to customers (by 1981, this service cost £45).

By 1970 Dateline had risen to prominence, thanks in part to advertising asking Tube passengers: “Could you be sitting next to the new man in your life?” and print ads promising to “make you a believer”. By 1982 Dateline had 44,000 customers, which made it the biggest dedicated dating business in the country. 

Patterson had been right to see the potential in pairing computation with matchmaking. The use of algorithms to return romantic matches would later be picked up by online dating sites, and eventually dating apps like Tinder, the world’s biggest online dating app, which now records around 1.6bn swipes per day. Dateline's computer processed questionnaire answers on partner preferences and self-description – today’s apps crunch different forms of information, including pictures and location information. Apps also attempt to encode “compatibility”, usually with software based on the 1962 Gale-Shapley algorithm, which refines matches after a cycle of proposals and rejections, or swipes left and right. Location-based software is also a crucial part of the 1,400 dating sites that operate in Britain today, over which all kinds of niche tastes are overlaid: there are apps and websites for spectacle-wearers, Brexit voters and those who like their men with beards. Gay dating sites and apps have flourished too, ever since Grindr was founded in 2009.  

Dateline, however, was a broad church, welcoming “shepherds and peers of the realm” alike. By removing class as a determinant of romantic suitability, Dateline furthered a radical new paradigm in the love quest. Psychology, not social background, now determined romantic compatibility – and an impartial computer served as the matchmaker. Compatibility is now central to our ideas about love, but interest in it emerged from the use of personality testing by psychologists. Researchers studied compatibility with increasing zeal in the 1960s. In the 1970s psychologists tried to quantify the secret sauce of relationships – Zick Rubin proposed the idea of a “love scale”. 

Mr Match John Patterson in 1996

Dateline’s focus on compatibility rather than class appealed to singles such as Elaine, a mental-health nurse who used the service in the 1970s (though she later found her husband through a Time Out personal ad). She could have contacted one of the exclusive introduction agencies, which prided themselves on having sage and ruthless human matchmakers to weed out the less successful, for a joining fee of between £600 and £2000. But for Elaine, these agencies “were too posh” and were “for people who had been in Oxford and Cambridge”. Dateline’s slogans, such as “Don’t gamble on finding your ideal partner”, also resonated with a generation increasingly loyal to the wonders of science. As Elaine recalled: “I think perhaps in the 70s, if serendipity didn’t work, you lived it and it didn’t work, perhaps you were attracted to something scientific.” 
 
Not everyone was seduced by Dateline’s methods. Jill Tweedie, the Guardian’s women’s editor, wrote in 1970 that she had “watched with astonishment [how] the computer has moved into the [realm] of love. To begin with, no computer – however flashy its innards – can introduce you to anyone whose details [aren’t] already in its maw.” Tweedie’s position was representative of the media view of Dateline: sceptical fascination. Journalists keenly followed a 1976 Office of Fair Trading inquiry into the computer-dating industry, initiated after a flood of complaints, including one instance in which Dateline matched “a Jewish girl with Palestinian man”. Many were matched with people who lived too far away, a problem that would finally be solved with the rise of the GPS

Love on the line A Dateline employee

Some observers found the rise of computer dating depressing on a more fundamental level. In his influential 1974 study of London, Soft City, Jonathan Raban saw toxic anonymity and alienation in the rise of computer dating, which “boldly exploits the shame of loneliness, and answers to the peculiarly big-city condition of sexual isolation”. Both the city and the computer were “mysterious and impersonal”, but the computer lacked any redemptive poetry. 

Dateline ensured that its psychological chops appeared just as serious as its technological prowess - prospective clients were assured that questionnaires were forged using the “most up-to-date research of British and American universities”. The idea that algorithmic power must be underpinned by psychological expertise lay behind some of the biggest dating sites of the 2000s. The one that has taken this approach furthest is eHarmony. Instead of being able to browse and scroll at liberty, users must answer a lengthy questionnaire that eHarmony’s psychologically astute algorithm interprets, thus producing suitable matches. The website claims to have a metric that assesses “32 dimensions of compatibility”, assessed in the completion of 80-question compatibility quiz.

Dateline, which also launched a successful offshoot magazine, Singles, and a singles holidays business, declined after Patterson’s death in 1997, struggling to make the shift to digital. Nonetheless, it was the boldest and most sustained attempt to bring computers to the quest for love in the pre-internet era. 

With the rise of the internet, online dating grew in popularity, but remained fairly marginal compared with the traditional ways of meeting people. Yet a stigma still surrounded it. Even as Match.com gave way to eHarmony and Plenty of Fish, internet dating was still the sort of thing one didn’t like to boast about.

That all changed with Tinder. A third of couples now meet online and the algorithm seems to be winning. It may have taken 50 years but John Patterson has been vindicated. It’s just a shame that he’s not around to see it. He would have loved it.