Before OK Cupid, before Match.com, and before eHarmony, there was TACT. TACT was a matchmaking computer based on a machine at the 1964 World’s Fair that matched pen pal, and it made its matches by analysing the results of 100-question surveys.
In a feature about online dating for the New Yorker, Nick Paumgartner opens the piece with an anecdote about Lewis Altfest’s encounter with the pen pal machine that inspired him to build TACT:
You filled out a questionnaire, fed it into the machine, and almost instantly received a card with the name and address of a like-minded participant in some far-flung locale-your ideal match. Altfest thought this was pretty nifty. He called up his friend Robert Ross, a programmer at I.B.M., and they began considering ways to adapt this approach to find matches closer to home. They’d heard about some students at Harvard who’d come up with a program called Operation Match, which used a computer to find dates for people. A year later, Altfest and Ross had a prototype, which they called Project TACT, an acronym for Technical Automated Compatibility Testing-New York City’s first computer-dating service.
The questionaire itself was unmistakably 1960s, culturally speaking. Chock full of borderline politically incorrect statements and transparent gender archetypes, the results were fed into an IBM computer on a punch card:
Each client paid five dollars and answered more than a hundred multiple-choice questions. One section asked subjects to choose from a list of “dislikes”: “1. Affected people. 2. Birth control. 3. Foreigners. 4. Free love. 5. Homosexuals. 6. Interracial marriage,” and so on. Another question, in a section called “Philosophy of Life Values,” read, “Had I the ability I would most like to do the work of (choose two): (1) Schweitzer. (2) Einstein. (3) Picasso.” Some of the questions were gender-specific. Men were asked to rank drawings of women’s hair styles: a back-combed updo, a Patty Duke bob. Women were asked to look at a trio of sketches of men in various settings, and to say where they’d prefer to find their ideal man: in camp chopping wood, in a studio painting a canvas, or in a garage working a pillar drill. TACT transferred the answers onto a computer punch card and fed the card into an I.B.M. 1400 Series computer, which then spit out your matches: five blue cards, if you were a woman, or five pink ones, if you were a man.
But more than just a machine that randomly matched whoever, Altfest sought to use the machine as part of a complete service that matched people together not only by personality, but geography as well. Initially the service was centered around the Lower East Side neighbourhood in Manhattan:
Over time, TACT expanded to the rest of New York. It would invite dozens of matched couples to singles parties, knowing that people might be more comfortable in a group setting. Ross and Altfest enjoyed a brief media blitz. They wound up in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune and in Cosmopolitan. The Cosmo correspondent’s first match was with a gym teacher who told her over the phone that his favourite sport was “indoor wrestling-with girls.” (He stood her up, complaining of a backache.)
Ultimately, Paumgarten writes, Altfest lost interest in TACT, feeling like it was a gimmick. And what’s funny is that TACT was indirectly responsible for his getting married – after a sequence of follies, Altfest ended up on a date with a reporter who was there with then intention of tearing apart the dating service. The rest is history.
And BTW, this account is only the tip of the iceberg of Paumgarten’s well-written piece on the history and culture behind online dating. You should check it out over at the New Yorker.