In 1966, I Started One of the World’s First Computer Dating Services. One Problem: I Had No Computer.

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March 4 2014 7:32 PM

Project Flame

In 1966, I started one of the world’s first computer dating services. One problem: I had no computer.

I wish I could remember when the idea first struck me. What possessed me to invent Project Flame?

It was January of 1966. I had just turned 18 and was a freshman in college, stranded in the middle of Indiana. Something was terribly wrong. This was supposed to be one of the four best years of my life, but life was passing me by. I was sick of the Big Ten and Greek life. My girlfriend had lost her allure. I was bored. There was, however, a new TV program on Monday nights: The Dating Game. A young woman would ask three men (Bachelors Nos. 1, 2, and 3) questions and pick one of them to go out with. It was much more fun than my homework.

Then I read an article about some students at Harvard who were using computers and punch cards to try to match fellow students. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?

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I placed an ad for my brainstorm in the school newspaper, the Daily Student. “Heard of Computer Dating? Why Not Try Project Flame!” My pitch: Just send in your name and address and $1—yes, one single dollar—and within a week you’d receive a questionnaire and an IBM punch card. Clients would fill out the questionnaire and write their name and address on the computer punch card. I suggested that their answers would be coded on the punch cards, and a university computer would analyze the data. “On March 8th, Flame Day, you’ll get a postcard—blue for girls and pink for guys—with the names and phone numbers of your three ideal matches.” At the end of the ad, I made a promise: “Any couples getting married as a result of Flame will receive a free copy of Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.” I had never read it. But it had a nice ring to it.

140304_Scans_flame
The ad in the Daily Student.

Courtesy of Ted Sutton

I wrote 50 questions, and I’m still proud of them.

True or false:

 I enjoy parades.

 If I could fly like Superman I wouldn’t keep it a secret.

 I would prefer a different first name.

Sometimes I wear shoes with no socks.

Nice guys finish last.

Better Red than dead.

I would rather be characterized as having integrity than being suave.

I like dogs.

Sexual relations before marriage can play an important part in establishing a couple’s social development.

Then, the gender-specific questions. “For Boys Only,” questions like:

I would rather date Mia Farrow than Gina Lollabrigida. [sic]

A woman’s place is in the home.

“For Girls Only”:

Raising a family in an ivy-covered bungalow is my idea of bliss.

I would rather date Johnny Carson than Sean Connery.

A real man does not use cologne. 

The student newspaper wrote an article about the launch of Project Flame and followed up the next day with a lead editorial condemning computer dating. But their condemnation didn't deter my classmates. Within a week, 800 or so responses arrived. My post office box couldn’t contain them all. What fun. Things, however, seemed to be getting out of hand when I received a card from the vice president of the Delta Zeta sorority. (Confession: They weren’t known for their beauty, and their nickname was D-Zs. Get it?) She wanted more questionnaires. When I knocked at their front door and introduced myself as the president of Project Flame, a girl cried out, “It’s the guy from Flame. He’s here!” and I was besieged by coeds, from all directions, all begging for their chance.

140304_Scans_1

What I didn’t mention to the D-Zs or anyone else was that I had no computer expertise, had borrowed the IBM cards from the registrar’s office, and had no intention of finding a computer to feed them into. Instead, we—I had a partner at first; eventually he grew scared and I bought him out—took the cards belonging to men and those belonging to women, shuffled them all up together, and made our matches by chance. I had just discovered Camus and was big on the randomness of life. On Flame Day, I gave my customers the chance at love I had promised them, but a computer had nothing to do with it.

140304_Scans_2
The questionnaire.

Courtesy of Ted Sutton

There was one customer whose prospects I didn’t consign to chance, a girl named Val who was 6-foot-4. With Val, I had no thoughts of dollar signs, just a great empty hole in my heart for this lonely giantess and the realization I could grant her the favor of a lifetime. I went through hundreds of men’s registrations. All I cared about was height. I found three, all taller than her, and on Flame Day, she received their names and they received hers.

The only problem: Somehow Val’s card had been put in with girls. I guess I thought with a name like that she couldn’t be a guy. But she, or I mean, he, was. A guy. Not only a guy, but a guy on the football team. And he failed to see the humor in being matched with three men. In a orthographically challenged letter to me, he complained: “Your questionnaire took more time than was neceesary on my part. I took a haf hour trying to decide wether you were trying to psych me out or wether I was just plain illiterate.” Not content to let sleeping dogs lie, Val told all to a reporter from the Daily Student, and the newspaper, quick to pounce, ridiculed Flame. Then the AP picked up the story. Paul Harvey featured it on 1,200 radio stations, which provoked an unfortunate phone call from my father asking me whether I was paying enough attention to my studies.

I took some of my earnings and fled to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for spring break. I vowed to work on my GPA, to transfer east, to leave Indiana behind me. I left Flame to crash and burn, and spent my time in the library studying Dante and Keats. I don’t know how many of the hundreds of couples Project Flame matched ended up together. Some of them certainly went on dates, and I even have a vague memory that two couples actually got married, though they never contacted me to demand their copies of The Art of Loving.

If only half a century ago, I had stuck with Flame, I would be the father of the startup of all times; the pioneer of an industry. But I wouldn’t have ended up in Cambridge, Mass., or gone to that funeral where I fell hook, line, and sinker for my wife of 30 years. Of course, we seemed to have nothing in common at the time. We never would have been matched by a computer. She was older with three children and living in the suburbs, and, believe it or not, was a couples therapist. I was a graduate student. Love is blind.

Ted Sutton is an educational psychologist and a writer.

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