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The criteria for compatibility had little to do with mutual affection or a shared enthusiasm for spicy food and Fleetwood Mac.

Happiness, self-fulfillment, “me time,” a woman’s needs: these didn’t rate.

Women were asked to look at a trio of sketches of men in various settings, and to say where they’d prefer to find their ideal man: in camp chopping wood, in a studio painting a canvas, or in a garage working a pillar drill. 1400 Series computer, which then spit out your matches: five blue cards, if you were a woman, or five pink ones, if you were a man.

Men were asked to rank drawings of women’s hair styles: a back-combed updo, a Patty Duke bob.

They rely on algorithms, those often proprietary mathematical equations and processes which make it possible to perform computational feats beyond the reach of the naked brain.

Some add an extra layer of projection and interpretation; they adhere to a certain theory of compatibility, rooted in psychology or brain chemistry or genetic coding, or they define themselves by other, more readily obvious indicators of similitude, such as race, religion, sexual predilection, sense of humor, or musical taste.

The term for this is “trading up.” It can lead you to think that your opportunities are virtually infinite, and therefore to question what you have. For some, of course, there is no end game; Internet dating can be sport, an end in itself.

Online dating sites, whatever their more mercenary motives, draw on the premise that there has got to be a better way.

They approach the primeval mystery of human attraction with a systematic and almost Promethean hand.

the fall of 1964, on a visit to the World’s Fair, in Queens, Lewis Altfest, a twenty-five-year-old accountant, came upon an open-air display called the Parker Pen Pavilion, where a giant computer clicked and whirred at the job of selecting foreign pen pals for curious pavilion visitors. Within a year, more than five thousand subscribers had signed on. It would invite dozens of matched couples to singles parties, knowing that people might be more comfortable in a group setting. They wound up in the pages of the New York subscriber.

You filled out a questionnaire, fed it into the machine, and almost instantly received a card with the name and address of a like-minded participant in some far-flung locale—your ideal match. He called up his friend Robert Ross, a programmer at I. M., and they began considering ways to adapt this approach to find matches closer to home. “This loser happens to be a talented fashion illustrator for one of New York’s largest advertising agencies.

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