Dating Science: America's First OK Cupid

Cristen Conger

Love, IBM 650-style.

In 1959, a couple of Stanford students, Jim Harvey and Phil Fialer, developed the first-known computerized dating program in the United States to pair up 49 men and 49 women, sort of like a technologically primitive OK Cupid. But unlike the popular dating site, Harvey and Fialer's "Happy Families Planning Service" wasn't a for-profit venture into digital matchmaking, but rather a class project for Math 139, Theory and Operation of Computer Machines -- and an excuse to throw a Great Date Matching Party because what else is college for than mixing and mingling with eligible ladies and gents between classes? Moreover, Jim Harvey had become an accomplished enough homebrewer that he had some cases of DIY malt beer he needed to get off his hands and into partygoers' bellies.

The "Happy Families" concept was pretty simple. Harvey and Fialer wrote a computer program to match men and women based on the similarity of their responses to a 30-question survey, sort of how OK Cupid suggests potential dates largely based on answers to both site- and user-generated questions. The guys also came up with the "Happy Families" questionnaire, inquiring about age, religion, hobbies, desired number of children, and other personal attributes. Under political persuasions, for instance, respondents could choose from Communist, Socialist, Democrat, New-Deal Republican, Old-Guard Republican and Fascist.

Once they collected the surveys from their 98 test subjects, it was time to run their program on Stanford's massive IBM 650 computer. Unfortunately, the machine's size t wasn't in proportion to its processing speed, and guys reportedly had to pull an all-nighter just to get their 49 matches. Later that semester, Harvey and Fialer informed their study pool of who was set up with whom and hosted the Great Matching Party. Reportedly, one marriage resulted from the experiment, and the class project received an A.