For anyone who grew up learning how to type from Mavis Beacon (back in the day when computer programs were advertised in catalogs and came in over-sized boxes), this news will come to you as a bit of a shock: Mavis Beacon never existed. You learned how to type from a fraud. Your life as you know it has been one colossal lie.
Vice has done a deep dive into the shovelful of falsehoods you were fed as a child (what will we learn next? Can adults also enjoy the taste of Trix? Are slap bands responsible for childhood leukemia?) and discovered that Beacon was created in order to fool you into believing there was an actual person who cared about your typing. According to her creators, their belief was that if you thought a living, breathing human was teaching you how to type, you’d be more inclined to continue working on your skills. This isn’t untrue—anyone remember that horrible typing game in which you had to type words quickly before a car crashed into them on the Apple II?—but it also speaks to the unrelenting cruelty of the human race that we won’t be satisfied with a typing program unless we can believe that there’s a tiny human being trapped in our computer, existing only for the purpose of being tortured by the fact that no one uses the home row.
Here’s who Mavis Beacon actually was, according to the people who found her:
One day at their office in Beverly Hills, during the creation of their typing program, Crane asked Abrams to join him on a trip to Saks Fifth Avenue. According to Abrams, there at the perfume counter, while shopping for a gift, Crane and Abrams met their typing teacher.
Abrams described Renee D’esprance as a “stunning Haitian woman,” with “three-inch fingernails.” Crane instantly wanted to put her face on the box for his typing software. They got to talking, and despite the concerns Abrams voiced (“She’s never been near a keyboard!”), they soon made a deal. Abrams told us they paid D’esprance a flat fee, bought her a conservative outfit that befitted a typist, and rented a business square in Century City on a Sunday, in order to take the cover photo. As for her long fingernails, Crane said “Don’t worry. We won’t show her hands,” according to Abrams.
D’esprance, Vice reports, was pleased with her success as Beacon and is probably kicking herself even now for accepting that flat fee, especially considering how huge the program became. And she was so convincing that it wasn’t just buyers who believed the “Mavis Beacon is a master typist” story. Other computer companies were fascinated with her backstory and amazing skills as well.
“One day I was walking through ComDex, which was a big computer show back in the 80s, and one of my frenemies—who worked for a competing company—said, ‘How did you land Mavis Beacon to endorse your product and use your teaching method? We’ve been after her for years, and we never could find her and get her to endorse our product!’” Abrams told us the folks at The Software Toolworks didn’t respond by falsely claiming to have scored the endorsement of a legendary typist, “nor did we come out and do anything to say, this is not a real person.”
I remember thinking the same thing. My parents bought the program fairly late (‘95-’96?), so Beacon’s star had fallen somewhat, but her name still meant something and after years of seeing her smiling face in the catalogs, actually working with the master typist made me feel professional, motivated, and very, very classy. Beacon’s creators, however, didn’t actually have a backstory for her; instead, they just slapped the name on a box and hoped users would buy it. It hasn’t even been the same Mavis from software release to software release!
“We had three goals. To walk into a software display and have our package catch your eye, number one. Our second thing was, we wanted you to turn the package around and read the back copy. Third, we wanted you to take it to the cash register,” he said.
One more thing: Mavis’ name isn’t an accident. While I agree with Vice that no other typing teacher will ever live up to Beacon’s name, that’s probably because it was engineered to be memorable. Mavis, according to the publication, was a tribute to Mavis Staples, and Beacon was supposed to make the user think of the typing teacher as a “beacon of light.” A welcoming lighthouse on the stormy sea of misspelled words.
Beacon’s entire history can be read here. Maybe have a drink before you read it, though? Having your childhood crumble around you isn’t easy to handle sober. (And if you decide to fire up the program for old time’s sake, I can guarantee it makes typing more fun, and the “typing jokes” included with the latest release way more hilarious.)
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