Alice Maes

Alice Maes

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

PUTNEY — Alice Maes landed a job at IBM in 1954 — the job title was IBM System Service Girl. She was just two years out of Kalamazoo College, where she had majored in economics and religion. She was the only female economics major and also was awarded the economics prize for 1952.

Still a tabulating company then, IBM used only punch cards. There was a suite of punch card equipment: card sorter, card printer, and card calculator, to produce reports or monthly statements. As a “system service girl,” she worked teaching, installing, and writing proposals for IBM customers. She taught both customers and IBM employees. System service girls were very attractive, smart and dressed to the nines with stocking seams always straight. Gloves and hats were mandatory.

IBM’s first electronic computer, the 650, was being sold in 1956, and Alice learned the machine code that replaced the plug boards for formatting reports. In 1957 IBM needed more systems help, and the “system service girls” became “system engineers” overnight. IBM women were always paid as much as the men.

In 1957, IBM introduced the FORTRAN programming language. Maes clearly remembers the practice problem to calculate the compound interest on the $24 sale of Manhattan Island purchased in 1627, known at the time as “the Indian problem.” For Maes, it made a big impression about the cost of interest and is a reason she avoided paying interest whenever possible.

By 1959, Maes was a system engineer on the “Conshohocken Trial” of AT&T, north of Philadelphia. AT&T with IBM jointly designed and installed a huge system, the 7070. Two IBM 1401 computers provided printing capacity. Maes was among dozens of IBM technicians who designed, installed, and tested the system. This was an in-depth experience with public utility costumer billing. A later customer was the Philadelphia Gas Works; the application was also customer billing.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Maes was sent to Chicago by IBM in 1960 on the SURE Project (Shared Utility Revenue Experience). She spent several month there coding with her team. The application was customer billing.

She left IBM in 1962 when she married. Sylvia and Sarah, her only children, came soon after, and so did a divorce. Maes said she probably would not have dared to get divorced in 1969, except she knew she could have a successful career again.

In 1969, she was hired as a consultant by the Philadelphia Gas Works, a former IBM customer of hers. As a programmer, with public utility customer billing experience, she was paid an impressive $25 an hour until Mayor Frank Rizzo terminated all consultants on the city payroll.

Thus, Alice Maes had a front row seat as data processing moved from punch cards to magnetic storage and plug boards to modern programming languages and computers.

Please join Alice Maes on Saturday, Oct. 16, from 1 to 3 p.m. on the porch of the Putney General Store to help her celebrate her 91st birthday. Your presence only; no presents.

Dan Axtell’s first job was programming the IBM 370 at Datatronic on Putney Road in 1981, still using punch cards. He writes from Westminster.