Joan Ball was a computer dating pioneer who started the first computer dating service in England, in 1964. Ball's computer dating service also pre-dated the earliest American computer dating services, like Operation Match at Harvard.
Joan Ball was born in 1934 and was the 6th child in her family. She was an unwanted child born to a poor, working-class family. She was briefly abandoned by her mother when she was very young. World War II started when she was only five years old, resulting in her being evacuated from London to the countryside to escape the aerial bombardments of London three times during the war. Although this may have saved her life, each foster family differed greatly and she was sexually harassed by one of the foster families that she lived with. When the war was over she was able to go home to her family in London again.
Joan Ball was dyslexic and struggled in school. She went through most of her life suffering from dyslexia, before it was known as such. She was not officially diagnosed until 1973, at the age of 39. As a coping mechanism she became the class clown when she was in school, so that she could make sure people "laughed with [her]" and not at her. During her school years she had a difficult home life: her mother often called her "a pig-headed bitch", and blamed Joan for her failing marriage. In 1949, Ball finished her last year of school and got a job as a shop assistant at The London Co-Operative society. Because of her dyslexia she had problems with writing and counting money.
Career and later lifeEdit
In 1953, Ball was hospitalized after a suicide attempt and when she got out she went to live with her aunt Maud and uncle Ted. The same year, at the age of 19, she got hired at Bourne & Hollingsworth. In 1954, she left and started working in a store's dress department. She found this string of jobs unfulfilling and difficult: at the time, the most interesting parts of the fashion industry--in Ball's view--were still a man's world and she could not do the kind of work she was interested in, like design. Shortly thereafter, however, she was able to start working for Berkertex, a leading fashion house in London.
Eros Friendship Bureau LtdEdit
In 1961, when she was 27, she decided to leave Berkertex. Though she had intended to manage a shop in Cambridge she found herself out of a job until the shop was ready to open. Needing to pay rent, she took a job at a marriage bureau. It was here that she decided to start her own marriage bureau. She founded the Eros Friendship Bureau Ltd in 1962 and discovered she had a knack for helping people make connections. Though her company would go on to be successful for a decade, she had trouble advertising her service early on because of the fact marriage bureaus were seen as slightly suspect at the time: There was a widespread belief that marriage bureaus were actually fronts for prostitution. Because she could not advertise in print easily Ball relied on placing radio ads with the "Pop Pirates"—the pirate radio stations that operated just off the coast of Britain in the 1960s playing rock and roll music that the BBC had banned. Ball's company focused on long term match-ups and relationships—primarily trying to achieve marriages for clients—and catered to an older crowd who were looking to settle down or who had been previously divorced.
In 1961, she met a man she refers to in her memoir as Kenneth. Kenneth would later become her sexual partner and would help her in her business, though they were never married.
St. James Computer Dating ServiceEdit
Joan changed the name of her marriage bureau to the St. James Computer Dating Service in 1964 and the bureau ran its first set of computer match ups in 1964. This made Ball's service the first commercially successful computer dating service in either the UK or the US, as historian Marie Hicks points out in a recent article on the history of computer dating.
In 1965, Ball merged her company with another marriage bureau run by a woman and together they formed Com-Pat, or Computer Dating Services Ltd. Shortly after the merger, the owner of the other marriage bureau sold out her share in the company to Joan and Joan became the sole proprietor of Com-Pat.
Competition from rival companiesEdit
Dateline, founded by John Richard Patterson in 1966, was a rival to Com-Pat. With this new rivalry, Ball saw the greater need for more advertising. Looking at questionnaires from Dateline and Operation Match in the USA, she learned that they emphasized questions about sex, which she and her employees thought would not lead to good matches. By 1969, her company was receiving a good response to their ads in News of the World, but Ball still felt she had to overcome the mindset that people had about computer dating being slightly odd or untoward. Newspapers at the time implied the people who used these services were lonely, sad or dysfunctional. Joan believed that this type of computer dating service was, on the contrary, a fun and intelligent way to meet people. Though newspapers sometimes painted a negative picture, Joan’s company was generally well received by the public. This led her to advertise in The Sunday Express, Evening Standard, and The Observer--all major British newspapers at the time. At this time, Ball was running both Com-Pat and Eros. Soon she decided to sell Eros and focus on Com-Pat. She realized how important the future of computerized dating was and saw the potential growth of a service like Com-Pat.
In 1970, Com-Pat Two was launched. Joan and her company were ahead of the game, because they were using the most advanced matching system created at the time. They were able to change the whole system with 50,000 members in a single weekend without any problems. The system used a questionnaire, and gave a list of four of the top matches at the end.
Though Joan had success with Com-Pat Two, she and her partner Ken began to run into economic and personal problems. Because Joan and Ken weren’t married, Ball felt she had no sense of security with him. She eventually moved into her own flat after living with Ken for eight years. This new place gave her a sense of independence, security, and pride because of what she had needed to accomplish to get it.
Problems with advertisementsEdit
Unfortunately troubled times were ahead for her company. Ball realized that their telephone number and address had been printed incorrectly in one of her major advertisements. Their telephone number had also been removed from the directory. This forced her to get a new phone number. At the same time, Dateline was becoming more and more successful and was able to leverage the fact the newspapers already took Com-Pat's advertisements to place its own ads in the same papers without the difficulties that Ball had faced earlier. In 1971, there was a Post Office strike which halted all mail. It lasted almost eight weeks and Ball's business couldn’t do anything during that time. Everything hit an all time low when the Daily Telegraph, the company's most successful advertising venue, refused to continue printing ads for Com-Pat because the paper had changed their advertising policy. Joan became depressed and felt unable to cope. At the same time, the UK was wracked with major strikes and economic problems: The miners' strike was causing chaos nationwide by disrupting the country's ability to produce electricity and power the government, businesses and industries that kept the economy functioning.
Sale of Com-Pat to DatelineEdit
In 1973, when she was 39, she was finally diagnosed with dyslexia. Not many people knew the word, so she stopped using it when no one else knew what she was talking about. She had trouble coming to terms with her own illness. By this time, the recession had worsened. She had been fighting to keep her company afloat but by 1974 she was in debt and decided to sell her company. She called John Paterson of Dateline and offered Com-Pat to him, if her would agree to pay all of the company's debts as part of the purchase. Seeing that this was a way to monopolize the computer dating market in the UK by doing away with Dateline's only major competitor, Patterson quickly agreed.
After a series of personal difficulties, Ball converted to Buddhism and began to come to terms with her illnesses and setbacks. Ball found herself with many regrets and came to the conclusion that she had locked herself away in her own emotional dungeon even though she had run a company focused on making new emotional connections between other people.
Impact and importance in the history of technologyEdit
Ball was a successful entrepreneur who was the first person of any gender to run a commercially viable computer dating service in either the UK or the USA. Her company predated Harvard's "Operation Match" by a year and preceded the other major British computer dating company, Dateline (run by John Patterson). Com-Pat operated under Ball's management for nearly a decade, until she was eventually bought out by Dateline in 1974. Ball's experience shows that, contrary to popular narratives on the web, women were in fact early pioneers in the field of computer dating and social networking by computer. The fact that Ball has remained mostly unknown until now also reflects how gendered stereotypes have resulted in the historical submersion of women's contributions in computing. Janet Abbate theorized in her book Recoding Gender--a history of women in computing--that "women who did make significant contributions were not always inclined, by temperament or socialization, to trumpet their accomplishments". This left many parts of computing history untold but currently historians are beginning to correct these oversights and to show how women like Joan Ball were important in the history of computing/computer dating.
- Ball, Joan (2012). Just Me. p. 318. ISBN 1312560142.
- Hicks, Marie (2016-11-01). "Computer Love: Replicating Social Order Through Early Computer Dating Systems". Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology (10). doi:10.7264/N3NP22QR. ISSN 2325-0496.
- Abbate, Janet (2012). Recoding Gender. MIT Press.