Make me a match,
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch…”
So much has changed since these lyrics from the hit 1960s Broadway play Fiddler on the Roof first debuted. Even though people are still looking for ways to find a good match and catch a good catch, the dating process was revolutionized with the advent of computers and dating apps.
However, most people probably think modern-day matchmakers are recent adopters of technology, not realizing the technology is hardly new. Television shows like The Bachelor or Bravo’s 2008 Millionaire Matchmaker and its tough-love cupid, Patti Stanger, are actually more old-school than we realize.
During this final week of WomanScape’s focus on the role of technology in our everyday lives, we’re excited to share the history of a woman named Joan Ball.
She was the first to innovate marriage and dating practices that harnessed technology. Yes, Joan was a revolutionary thinker with a penchant for identifying good marriage matches, but it was her approach and design back in 1963 that laid the foundation for future innovators and dating Apps.
In 1962, Joan established the Eros Friendship Bureau Limited after working a short time at a marriage bureau in London. Just ten years earlier, she was miserable – physically abused and abandoned by her mother who committed her to a mental institution in the U.K. even though there was nothing unstable about Joan.
Joan was institutionalized because she refused to accept her mother and father’s verbal and physical abuse at home. In the 19th century, the practice of locking people away to conveniently dispose of them was not uncommon. WS’s Airbrushing Italian Women From History exposes this unjust practice. Women like Ida Dasler whose husbands wanted to divorce them or steal their wealth locked them away.
Photo Credit: Mashable.com
Fortunately, Joan was discharged from the hospital after a brief stay thanks to her aunt and uncle who offered to help. She found work in a shop and then landed a better paying job at a marriage bureau. Joan discovered her knack for matchmaking. It was here that she developed a unique approach after recognizing it was better to find out what people didn’t like in a partner versus what they did.
Joan’s success grew and she left the bureau to set up her own shop. It was a challenging time to do this because many people thought marriage bureaus were a front for prostitution.
Reputation and trust were vital. After all, it was the sixties – the swinging sixties and the sexual revolution. But Joan was all business and had already started to design flow charts to organize her large pool of questions, answers, and applicants.
Within a year of opening her doors in 1964, Joan changed her company name to Com Pat (computerized compatibility) to build trust and communicate the value of her scientific approach. To increase the efficiency and the effectiveness of a customer’s Q and A decision tree, Joan implemented the use of computer punch cards with encoded data.
Across the Atlantic, a group from Havard calling themselves Operation Match started doing the same thing.
They thought they had developed the first technology-driven dating service. While they would become industry leaders and eventually buy out Joan’s business, they were not the first to harness this new technology.
Unfortunately, however, Joan had little money to invest and advertise her business; a typical issue for many entrepreneurs and one that is particularly problematic for women entrepreneurs in the technology industry. A series of mistakes with advertisements including an incorrect telephone number on her paid ads sabotaged her already strapped financial efforts to grow her business and prevent her eventual bankruptcy.
Unable to scale up her business, Joan could not compete with new competitors to the market like Dateline. They benefited from Joan’s early investments and hard work educating people about the benefits of dating services. By 1974, Operation Match had grown quickly and swooped in to buy out Joan’s business when she needed to pay off her unaffordable debt. All that Joan had built over ten years was sold to them for a paltry £2,000.
Years after Joan closed her business, she struggled financially and physically. Eventually, she regained her health and learned she suffered from dyslexia. This lifted her self-esteem knowing her struggles with reading and math had nothing to do with her intelligence. Joan recovered, writing a book called Just Me and she continued to date even though she never married.
I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for Joan to watch competitors cash out on a multi-million dollar industry that she had helped shape.
While this irks me and the fact that Joan remains relatively unknown for her innovative technological approach to the first dating service in the U.S. and the U.K., I’m glad Joan found happiness. Furthermore, what’s amazing is that not much has changed from her original designs and work-flow charts.
Of course, dating Apps today are much more sophisticated and allow people to use them on their phones or desktops. Perhaps in some way, the evolution of technology and new social norms have flattened the once male-gender-centric approach to dating. Women can harness the benefit of more technology choices and dating Apps like Bumble are female-focused and provide greater control over privacy and choices.
In the end, however, what drives success across any technology platform comes from the understanding, ability, and creativity of an inventor or programmer. So as we wade into unchartered technological advancements like artificial intelligence (AI) and assisted AI, it’s important to how these new advancements will disrupt or change the way we related to each other. We can’t lose sight of what makes us fundamentally human in our quest for love and happiness.