Hit the X to close...
People all over the world are using dating apps more than ever, with over 323 million of us currently using them. I say ‘us’ because yes, like many of my peers, I have used them and successfully found a partner on one of them. A few of my best friends are even about to marry their fiancé that they met online. I for one was sceptical about using them, but ever since COVID-19, how exactly are you supposed to meet people?! Of all the apps, Tinder, unsurprisingly, is the most popular dating app worldwide. But, as all of this may seem like a relatively new phenomenon, I’m here to tell you that computer dating has been around for far longer than Tinder or Match.com. Heck, it was around even before the introduction of the personal computer (PC).
A group of young men from Harvard usually get the credit for creating the first computerised dating service, named ‘Operation Match.’ However, it was in fact a woman, Joan Ball, from England, who first created a way to determine compatibility using a computer. She ran a business called the St. James Computer Dating Service, which was later renamed to Com-Pat (short for computerised compatibility). Ball’s first match made by a computer was in 1964, a whole year before ‘Operation Match’ was fully functioning at Harvard.
Joan Ball was born in 1934 in London to working class parents whose marriage was failing.
She didn’t really have the easiest start in life as, due to World War II she was evacuated from London to the countryside and was abandoned by her mother. She was passed around foster homes and was sadly even sexually harrased by one of her foster families. When the war was finally over she was able to go back to her family in London.
Ball was also severely dyslexic and suffered from mental illness, both of which were not understood at the time and went undiagnosed. She struggled at school and wasn’t officially diagnosed with dyslexia till she was 39 years old. Therefore she went through most of her life being ridiculed, even by her mother.
At 19, Ball was hospitalised in a mental institute because of a suicide attempt. When she got out she went to live with her aunt and uncle who were more supportive. That same year, she started to work at a fashion store but she quickly realised that the parts of the industry that interested her the most, like design, were still only seen to be jobs open to men. She was then able to get a job at Berkertex, a leading fashion house in London and continued to work here till 1961. It was then, at age 27, that she left, with intentions to manage a shop in Cambridge. However, rent was due and she was forced to take another job to pay the bills till the shop opened. This was at a marriage bureau and it was while she worked here, that she decided to start her own.
Ball launched her own marriage bureau, called the ‘Eros Friendship Bureau Ltd’ in 1962. She realised that she had a knack for helping people make connections and she focused on long term matchups, trying to achieve marriage for her clients. Advertising her business was a struggle though, as at the time, marriage bureaus had a lot of stigma attached to them, as many people thought that they were simply a front for prostitution. Thus, Ball had to rely on placing radio ads on pirate radio stations that had become popular in 1960s Britain, playing rock and roll music banned by the BBC.
In 1964 Ball changed the name of her company to the ‘St. James Computer Dating Service’. This was the year that she ran the first set of computer match ups, making her company the first commercially successful computer dating service in the UK or US. Ball realised that she had more success with match-ups when focusing on what people did not want in a partner. She would use punch cards and run the participant’s answers through a time-shared computer to find a set of answers that matched.
In 1965 Ball had merged with another female led marriage bureau and they called their company ‘Computer Dating Services Ltd’ aka ‘Com-Pat’. Not long after they merged, the other lady sold her shares in the company to Ball, making her the sole proprietor. Com-Pat 2 was a more advanced version of the original counterpart and was launched in 1970. Ball’s system was successful, however she was still having issues with advertising.
John Richard Patterson founded ‘Dateline’ in 1966 and was Com-Pat’s biggest rival. Because of this, Ball realised that she needed to invest in more advertising, which was hard to come by. Dateline had more emphasis on questions about sex vs long term relationships and Ball didnt think that this would lead to good matches so she stuck to her guns. By 1969 her company was doing better, with ads in all the major newspapers at the time; News of the Word, The Sunday Express, Evening Standard and the Observer. She realised though, that there was still a way to go to change people’s mindset about computer dating being odd or unbecoming. At the time, newspapers would imply that people who went for their services were lonely, desperate and dysfunctional. Ball strongly believed in her vision and that this was a fun and intelligent way to meet people. She stuck to her beliefs that there was a huge future in computer dating and she saw the potential growth of a service such as Com-Pat.
By 1973, Ball was facing issues that were somewhat out of her control. Some of the newspapers had printed her phone number and address incorrectly in the ad leading to a loss of potential clients. A Post Office strike stopped all mail for 8 weeks in which Ball had no business. The final straw was when the Daily Telegraph changed their advertising rules and pulled all of Com-Pat’s ads. The company’s most successful ads were in that paper so that really took a toll. Not to mention the major miners’ strikes and economical problems the UK was facing. Joan, like many female entrepreneurs, had little support at these times and was unable to scale up her business. By 1973, she was also finally diagnosed with dyslexia. She had some trouble coming to terms with this and found it hard to talk to people about it as the general population knew little of it. By 1974 these financial and personal troubles led to a battle with depression. She fought to keep her company alive but her debt was mounting, so she made the decision to sell to Dateline, as long as Patterson agreed to pay all of her company’s debt with the purchase.
Like a lot of women in the industry, Joan Ball’s contributions to the tech industry, especially the online dating industry, have gone unsung for a long time. Times are changing now though, with more information emerging about notable female pioneers.
It must have been so frustrating for Ball to have watched others cash out in an industry that she helped to shape. What she achieved is not to be ignored though. Ball managed to build a business despite all the setbacks she had. She is a true embodiment of a strong woman and her ingenuity paved a way for a huge part of today’s social life, the online dating scene.
Next time you’re swiping or chatting away on any of the myriad of dating apps available, remember that you have Joan Ball to thank.
“Dating app revenue and usage statistics (2022)”. Curry, D. March 2022
“The mother of all swipes”. Hicks, M. July 2017
“15 unsung women in tech you should know about”. Kraus, R. March 2018
“Women’s History Month: Joan Ball”. Pracy, V. March 2019
“Computer love: replicating social order through early computer dating systems”. Hicks, M. 2016