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The Originals

Matching them up

During a late-night bull session at Winthrop House in 1965, Harvard undergraduates Jeff C. Tarr ’66 and Vaughan Morrill ’66 dreamed up what was then a far-out notion: use a computer to arrange compatible dates. “The goal was not to make money, but to have some fun,” is how Tarr recalls it. “And to meet some attractive ladies.”

Operation Match was billed as a “social experiment.” Some European companies had successfully matched people for marriage, but using computers to manipulate intimate human relationships was in no way the norm. Some peers sneered at the idea; others deemed it simply silly. “I’m sure people thought we were crazy,” Tarr laughs. “We were.”

Aided by David L. Crump ’66 and Douglas H. Ginsburg (a Cornell University dropout who went on to become a Harvard Law School professor and nominee for the Supreme Court), they drafted questionnaires for those looking for love. “What they know now is that opposites don’t attract, that attitudinal similarities attract, and physical appearance that is consistent with expectations attracts—we knew that then,” says Crump, today a law professor at the University of Houston. “But attraction is a very imperfect science. The questionnaires we wrote were scientific and whimsical—they were packaged as fun to fill out.” It cost respondents $3 and a stamp to participate.

The group’s knowledge of computers was scant, Crump allows. Early on, pumping out the matches required a friend to build a program, for which they paid $100. The data were transferred to punch cards, which were fed into a rented computer the size of a small room on which the team was permitted to work between the hours of 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. on Sundays. It took six weeks to produce a match list. “People got a letter saying who they were matched to, with phone numbers, and they were very pleased,” Tarr says. “One woman at Vassar got over 100 matches. One of them was her roommate.”

The 1966 Valentine’s Day issue of Look magazine featured Operation Match, Tarr reports, after which he appeared as the mystery guest on the CBS quiz show To Tell The Truth and pitched the “high-tech” dating system on television and radio talk shows. By chance, Newsweek had recently featured a UCLA coed, Vicki Albright, whom Operation Match flew to Cambridge as “Miss Match.” The smooth move not only generated valuable publicity, but increased “our own chances of landing a date with Miss Albright,” explains Tarr, who now runs an investment company, Junction Advisors, in Manhattan. (A fellow Winthropian won the date, but Tarr et al. earned enough money to continue operating.)

“We became one of the new cultural trends,” reports Crump. By the time they sold the company in 1968, Operation Match had solicited more than a million respondents—a number of whom actually got married. “Just not us,” he adds. “Of course, statistically, if you match up a million people, marriages are likely to happen.” They also raised a lot of money, for mere undergraduates. Eventually Operation Match (and its parent, Compatibility Research Inc.) were bought up and the technology used to match like-minded college roommates and as a gimmick to increase tourist and hotel traffic.

“I watch the computer-dating business with long glasses,” Crump says today, without regrets. “It’s a very large industry, I would guess a billion-dollar industry, that includes—which is the natural evolution of our company. If we’d had the Internet back then we would have used it. Operation Match was really the first system of its type that used technology and was inexpensive and used mass marketing.” Operation Match vitalized his “entrepreneurial genes,” says Tarr, who wrote his senior thesis on the business. The experience also aided his postcollegiate career in risk arbitrage, where, early on, most of his colleagues had no idea what a computer could do for consumers and clients.

Tarr notes that his son, Jeff Tarr Jr. ’96, concentrated in computer science and that his daughter, aspiring actress Jennie Tarr ’01, and her friends find on-line dating utterly normal. “They’ve gotten some good responses,” he says. “In our day, you had to go to a bar to meet people. But people are so much busier now, and dating through the computer is just much easier (and more efficient) than going on a blind date and spending a milquetoast evening.” His daughter, in fact, has been pondering the idea of throwing an “Operation Match” party for single friends. “Not to make money,” Tarr says, ” but just to have some fun.”