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History of Online Dating

Online dating is a billion dollar industry, and hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t publish a study or a thinkpiece trying to explain why.

In a relatively short span of time, online dating has transformed from a last-ditch effort for the desperate to a serious contender in the search for love. Almost everyone can name a couple who met on a website or app. Cupid has been supplanted by swipes.

But as thoroughly modern as this method may seem, its roots stretch back centuries. Services like Match and eHarmony weren’t history’s first matchmakers - they weren’t even the first technology-based dating platforms. We have always sought out new ways to find love, sex, and companionship. Digital dating is merely the latest incarnation of that deeply human quest.

This is the true story of the evolution of dating up to the digital age.

Ancient Matchmaking

Today’s matchmakers are algorithms, but our ancestors relied on actual humans to introduce them to compatible partners. Matchmakers were an integral part of life in ancient Greece, China, and Japan. One of the earliest examples of matchmaking occurs in the Book of Genesis, where a servant is tasked with choosing a bride for Abraham's son.

1600s

Personal advertisements began to appear in British newspapers in the late 17th century, melding matchmaking with mass media for the first time. These ads were often the final recourse for single men who were aging out of the appropriate years for bachelorhood.

1700s

Matrimonial agencies and personal ads remained big business in Britain into the 18th century. Newspaper advertisements were also one of the only ways for gay men and women to meet discreetly and safely in an age when homosexuality was illegal.

1800s

Personal ads got their first taste of mainstream success in the 1800s, when Europe’s aristocrats used them to engage in scandalous romantic entanglements. The rest of the public caught on by the mid-1800s, and by the end of the century, con artists realised they had perfect victims in vulnerable singles searching for love. The dating scam was born.

Early 1900s

The early 20th century saw an explosion of popularity for personal ads in America, first for farmers in sparsely populated rural areas, then for lonely World War I soldiers seeking pen pals. The 1920s brought early "scientific" matchmaking tests that measured things like pulse and body odor to determine whether a couple would thrive or fail.

1959

A major turning point in the tale of tech-assisted dating came in 1959, when a pair of Stanford students conducted a class project called Happy Families Planning Service. Using the university’s newly acquired IBM 650 computer and a punch card questionnaire, the students paired 49 men and 49 women in the first example of computerized matchmaking.

1960s

The 1960s took hold of that early Stanford experiment and ran with it. Harvard students Jeff Tarr and Vaughan Morrill used a survey and an IBM 1401 for a social experiment dubbed ‘Operation Match.’ Thousands of daters used the service during the decade, paying around $3 each to fill out a questionnaire. Two more computer-and-questionnaire dating services came out of MIT, Eros in 1965 and Data-Mate in 1968.

An IBM 1401

1970s

Singles of the 1970s experimented with ways to date across long distances. Cherry Blossoms' mail-order bride catalog launched in 1974. Video dating services like Great Expectations, founded in 1976, also became popular, though they failed to completely shed their stigma.

1980s

Experimentation continued into the 1980s. Daters began to flock to chat rooms and electronic bulletin boards to make digital connections. Dating also became a source of pop culture entertainment, as Blind Date hit television screens and spawned copycat shows.

1990s

Everything changed in 1995. The World Wide Web was expanding on a large scale around the world, and Match.com became the first major dating site to register a domain. JDate followed in 1997. Email and instant messaging flourished, allowing people to connect quickly and more conveniently. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail normalised the idea of finding love online for a generation of moviegoers.

Match.com fin the year 2000

2000s

Countless more websites for love and friendship launched throughout the 2000s. eHarmony hit the scene in 2000. Ashley Madison debuted in 2002. Skype was released in 2003. OkCupid and Facebook followed in 2004, then Badoo and SeekingArrangement in 2006. Smartphones reached the mass market in 2007. With them came Skout and other early location-based dating platforms. Grindr launched in 2009, kicking off a new wave of LGBT-focused dating services.

2010s

The latest era of digital dating took off with the debut of Tinder. Mobile apps became the hottest way for young singles to meet. Coffee Meets Bagel launched in 2012, Hinge in 2013, Happn and Bumble in 2014. A flood of niche apps followed, and the swipe became the ultimate symbol of dating in the modern age.

2020s…

What does the future have in store for tech-savvy singles? Experts predict it could be video, or virtual reality, or artificial intelligence, or DNA matching. Whatever it is, two things are certain: it’s bound to be big business, and there’s no tool humans won’t try if it means finding the connection we crave deeply.

If you want to find out more about online dating and dating services you can check our dating industry statistics and facts page.

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