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Oct 5, 2019

Mavis Beacon Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to give thanks to a wonderful lady. A saint. The woman that taught me to type. Mavis Beacon. Over the years I often wondered what Mavis was like. She took me from a kid that was filled with wonder about these weird computers we had floating around school to someone that could type over a hundred words a minute. She always smiled. I never saw her frown once. I thought she must be a teacher somewhere. She must be a kind lady whose only goal in the world was to teach young people how to type. And indeed, she’s taught over a million people to type in her days as a teacher. In fact she’d been teaching for years by the time I first encountered her. Mavis Beacon was initially written for MS-DOS in 1987 and released by The Software Toolworks. Norm Worthington, Mike Duffy joined Walt Bilofsky started the company out of Sherman Oaks, California in 1980 and also made Chessmaster in 1986. They started with HDOS, a health app for the Osborne 1. They worked on Small C and Grogramma, releasing a conversation simulation tool from Joseph Weizenbaum in 1981. They wrote Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing in 1987 for IBM PCs. It took "Three guys, three computers, three beds, in four months”. It was an instant success. They went public in 1988 and were acquired by Pearson in 1994 for around half a billion dollars, becoming Mindscape in 1994. By 1998 she’d taught over 6,000,000 kids to type. Today, Encore Software produces the software and Software MacKiev distributes a version for the Mac. The software integrates with iTunes, supports competitive typing games, and still tracks words-per-minute. But who was Mavis? What inspired her to teach generations of children to type? Why hasn’t she aged? Mavis was named after Mavis Staples but she was a beacon to anyone looking to learn to type, thus Mavis Beacon. Mavis was initially portrayed by Haitian-born Renée L'Espérance, who was discovered working behind the perfume counter at Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills by talk-show host Les Crane in 1985. He then brought her in to be the model. Featuring an African-American woman regrettably caused some marketing problems but didn’t impact the success of the release. So until the next episode, think about this: Mavis Beacon, real or not, taught me and probably another 10 million kids to type. She opened the door for us to do more with computers. I could never write code or books or even these episodes at a rate if it hadn’t been for her. So I owe her my sincerest of gratitude. And Norm Worthington, for having the idea in the first place. And I owe you my gratitude, for tuning into another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re lucky to have you. Have a great day!