A computer picked my date: IBM computer dances of the 1960s

With the plethora of dating websites out there–OKCupid, Match, eHarmony, and even some more niche sites like FarmersOnly or Geek2Geek–you may think that the idea of having a computer match you up with a date developed in tandem with the internet age. Not so. At least since the 1960s, computer programmers have been working on algorithms to match people up. Take, for example, the IBM computer dances held at ISU in the 1960s.

The first dance was held October 12, 1963, in the ballrooms of the Memorial Union. It was sponsored by the Ward System, the residence organizations for off-campus students. As with online dating sites, students who wished to participate in the dance filled out long (120 questions) questionnaires in advance. Staff at the Iowa State Computation Center transferred the answers to punch cards that were fed into a computer for processing.

Students holding punch cards for the IBM Computer Dance in 1963.

Students holding punch cards for the IBM Computer Dance in 1963. From University Photographs Collection, box 1647.

According to one Des Moines Register article from October 4, 1963, “After basic sorting, according to male and female, short and tall, plump and thin, younger and older, the computer will consider such ingredients of compatibility as: What subjects each student likes to talk about; preferences in books, television programs and movies; their religion, politics, and family background; academic ability, dating preferences and personality traits” (from the Clair George Maple Papers, RS 6/2/12, box 5, folder 10).

The system gave each student three matches, the first match being the student’s “ideal partner” from the group of participants, and the dance was divided into three sessions, to allow all of the matches to meet.

And what did the participants think of the event? All-in-all, it got good reviews. According to an Iowa State Daily article from October 15, 1963, “Several WRA [Women’s Residence Association] and sorority social chairmen reported general pleasure expressed by girls attending the dance. Some girls have accepted dates with their matches; others said they enjoyed the evening but did not particularly care to continue the relationship” (from the Clair George Maple Papers, RS 6/2/12, box 5, folder 10). There were even reported to be four couples that got engaged as a result of the dance. (See image below.)

Newspaper clipping, likely from the Iowa State Daily from 1964, describing four engagements that came out of the IBM Computer Dance in 1963. From the Clair George Maple Papers, RS 6/2/12, box 5, folder 10.

Newspaper clipping, likely from the Iowa State Daily from 1964, describing four engagements that came out of the IBM Computer Dance in 1963. From the Clair George Maple Papers, RS 6/2/12, box 5, folder 10. [click for larger image]

And just like those who have sat through terrible online dates, there were some who complained about their IBM dance experience. Complaints ranged from incompatibility, to being paired with wallflowers, to personal jabs. Most notably, one male described his date as “‘not only built like an elephant but danced like an elephant.'”

As you might expect, such a novelty as computer-picked dance partners drew national attention, and the event was covered by The New York Times, Associated Press, United Press International, the Wall Street Journal, and Life magazine, as well as WOI-TV, Omaha TV, and ABC-TV.

After that much press, other colleges and universities across the country were eager to get in on the novelty, too, so the Iowa State Computation Center agreed to process the punched questionnaire cards sent in by other universities who wanted to hold their own computer dances.

A card sorter like the one shown here in the Iowa State Computation Center would have been used to sort the punch cards for the dance. From the University Photographs Collection, box 439.

A card sorter like the one shown here in the Iowa State Computation Center would have been used to sort the punch cards for the dance. From the University Photographs Collection, box 439.

For more on the history of the IBM computer dances, check out this Iowa State Daily article. Documentation of the dances can also be found in the Clair George Maple Papers (RS 6/2/12) (see box 5, folder 10 and map case items), newly processed at Special Collections and University Archives. Stop in and see us!

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