From lonely hearts to electronic dating

Some of us are lucky, we just stumble across the one we are going to share our lives with. But for others something more purposeful is required. So how have people over the centuries used changing technology to find somebody to love?

  • News print
  • Computers/Online
  • TV
  • Mobiles

How has dating changed with time?

  • 1695

    First lonely hearts

    The first lonely hearts ad was published in A Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade on 19 July 1695. It was placed by a "gentleman" looking to "match himself" to a "good young gentlewoman".

  • 1870


    The Matrimonial News was the first newspaper dedicated to single people and it was followed by the launch of several matrimonial magazines. By 1900, there were about 20 newspapers just for people looking for partners.

  • 1915

    Lonely soldier

    The 20th Century created a niche market for lonely hearts ads. The Daily Express ran a story on "the loneliest man at the front", a World War I soldier who was looking for female pen pals. He received 470 letters in two days.

  • 1944

    The Marriage Bureau

    At this 1940s dating agency, men and women were asked to fill confidential forms with personal details and a description of their ideal mate. The Marriage Bureau would then pair them up and set up their first date.

  • 1951

    Lonely Hearts Killers

    Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez targeted widows who placed lonely hearts ads in the papers. Fernandez seduced the women and stole their possessions while Beck posed as his sister. They were convicted for three murders and executed in 1951. A film called The Honeymoon Killers was made about the couple in the 1970s.

  • 1959

    Computer matchmaking

    As a final course project, maths students at Stanford University in the US developed the Happy Families Planning Services by programming an IBM computer to pair up 49 men and 49 women who had filled out questionnaires at a computer-date matching party. It resulted in one marriage.

  • 1965

    Operation Match

    In 1965, two Harvard students started Operation Match, using computer punch cards to match students for dates. College students paid $3 (£2) for the names of at least five compatible matches.

  • 1965

    Dating show

    The Dating Game was the first show of its kind and blazed a trail for others around the world, with versions in 18 other countries. Forty-five years after it began, a version of The Dating Game was launched on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites in March 2011.

  • 1980s

    Enter the chatroom

    Bulletin board systems, which served as a precursor to the internet, enabled online communication. People could communicate remotely and fall in love in cyberspace chatrooms without having ever met in person.

  • 1985

    UK’s Blind Date

    A primetime TV show on Saturdays, it had over 18 million viewers at one point in the 80s. A man or a woman asked three people from the opposite sex three questions from behind a screen, then picked the person whose answers they liked the most. One couple, who met on the show in 1998, are still together today.

  • 1995

    Online supermarket for love allowed users to post a profile and to browse the profiles of potential partners. Many sites followed its lead over subsequent years, providing single people with several options for posting and browsing online personal ads. In June 2001, it reached 2 million members.

  • 1998

    E-mail love

    The film You’ve Got Mail featured two professionals (played by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks) caught up in a bitter business rivalry, but who fall in love while communicating anonymously by email, unaware of each other’s real identity. According to some psychologists, the film helped take away some of the stigma of online dating.

  • 2000

    Science match

    When was launched in 2000 it claimed to offer a new science-based online matching system, also referred to as algorithm-based matching or compatibility matching.

  • 2000s

    Matchmaking in the park

    Chinese parents place advertisements on park railings on behalf of their children, highlighting why they are marriage material, so other parents can read them and decide if their offspring is a suitable match.

  • 2001

    Island paradise

    Temptation Island is a US TV reality show in which couples agree to live on a paradise island with a group of single people, to test the strength of their relationships. The show was syndicated in 17 countries including Argentina, Philippines and Russia.

  • 2003

    Online dating is a big business, launched in 2003, is now China's largest online dating site. It has more than 9 million unique users per month, according to internet intelligence company comScore.

  • 2006

    Want to meet now?

    Badoo is a location-based smartphone application (app) for people who do not know each other but want to connect spontaneously via their devices. According to the service, Badoo now has over 170 million registered users in 180 countries.

  • 2009


    The gay meet-up app Grindr was released in 2009. The location-based app enables gay men to meet other men within a certain radius. In 2012, Grindr said it had 4 million users in 192 countries, with 1.1 million users online daily.

  • 2010

    If you are the one

    China's most popular dating game show, Fei Cheng Wu Rao, started in January 2010. A man introduces himself to 24 women on a podium with a light on. They keep their light on if they are interested. If all lights go off, the man loses. Based on the Australian dating programme Taken Out, with the UK version called Take Me Out.

  • 2012

    Billboard for a Latina

    Californian millionaire Marc Paskin's Christmas wish was simple: a Latina girlfriend. He took the lonely hearts ad a step further by advertising on a huge billboard on a San Diego motorway. He received over 15,000 replies.

  • 2013

    The spread of online dating

    Today, there are more than 1,000 websites dedicated to online dating around the world. is ranked second in the Middle East and Africa; is the most popular in India; PlentyofFish is the top site in the UK; and in Latin America Oasis Dating Network is the most visited, according to internet intelligence company comScore. About 10% of total number of internet users around the globe go to online dating sites.

The future of dating

  • Anders Sandberg

    Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University

    In 50 years’ time interaction will be based on advanced social media. We will use technology to help us stay together. So, rather than getting a key to an apartment we will have a key to a network.”
  • Eli Finkel

    Professor of Psychology, Northwestern University

    Online companies are now setting up events they call the stir, where people meet face to face. As the algorithm you’ve got between your ears is better than any computer programme.”
  • Dawn Shepherd

    Assistant Professor, Department of English, Boise State University

    As long as people go on dates, all the systems work. It's like online shopping. There's a large inventory of potential dates: Dating has been transformed.”

You can find out more about What if the BBC's special series looking at aspects of the future, throughout February and March

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