Typecast: Mavis Beacon, The Typing Teacher Who Never Was, Is Turning 30

Encore
Encore

When Software Toolworks co-founder Joe Abrams went to the software convention Comdex in early 1988, he was greeted by industry colleagues offering their congratulations. He had somehow been able to secure famed typing instructor Mavis Beacon to endorse his company’s typing tutorial, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

“We’ve been trying to get her for years,” one said. “How did you do it?”

Abrams shrugged. It had been easy to get Mavis because Mavis didn’t exist. Abrams and his partners had invented her.

“She was not a real person, and we never said she was,” Abrams tells Mental Floss. “A kind of cult developed around this fictitious character.”

In Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, people struggling to adapt to the growing number of personal computers in circulation were led through a series of exercises and lessons intended to improve their typing speed. Other programs had existed prior to Mavis Beacon, but none had bothered to give their sterile software an identity. With Mavis, Software Toolworks developed a digital Betty Crocker—a cheerful, patient, good-humored persona that stood out on retail shelves. By 1998, 6 million copies had been sold.

The company was amused to receive calls requesting interviews or personal appearances by Mavis, a sure sign she was resonating. But before the typing icon became one of the PC industry’s biggest success stories, Abrams discovered that not all retailers would warm to the idea of a woman of color—even a fictional one—endorsing software.

Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks was the name programmer Walt Bilofsky decided to give to his modest software enterprise in 1980. Selling programs that offered type-to-text features uncommon in those days, Bilofsky built up a business around a small circle of personal computer hobbyists in need of productivity programs. Presentation and marketing was not a priority.

“We sold programs in Ziploc bags,” Bilofsky tells Mental Floss.

By the mid-1980s, working together with his cousin Joe Abrams, Bilofsky was ready to move into more commercial pursuits. Another company, Software Country, solicited his help in putting together a home gaming bundle. When Bilofsky wrote a game called Chessmaster 2000 for Software Country’s Les Crane, the two companies merged, and Crane (who died in 2008) became a partner.

It proved to be a perfect coupling. Bilofsky and his small stable of programmers knew software, while Crane—a former talk show host—knew marketing. For Chessmaster 2000, Crane went to considerable effort and expense to imagine a “chess wizard” who would personify the game for players. They wouldn’t be playing a faceless algorithm, but a wizened old pro who appeared on the game's box. With the photo shoot alone costing $10,000, it was a far cry from the plastic bags of Bilofsky’s past.

“Les’s marketing was huge,” Bilofsky says. “I was aghast he spent that much. But he was right.” Chessmaster 2000 was a huge hit for the company. Their next major effort, a typing tutorial, would eclipse it.

According to Abrams, the company was a “wave rider, not a wave maker.” Chess programs were popular, and Abrams saw opportunity to anthropomorphize it with a mascot of sorts. The same proved true for typing programs, which were numerous but often paid little attention to user interface.

“We wanted to pick something where we could make that interaction different than anything that had come before,” Abrams says. “The difference was immersion.” If someone missed a word while “driving,” a bug might splatter on the windshield. If the user wanted to take a break, the software wouldn’t fight them.

“This was before Windows, when pop-up menus were not the norm,” Bilofsky says. “The user could drive the program. You didn’t need to have the manual open in order to use it.”

Perfecting the software was only half the battle. At the time, the computer industry was getting more invested in personalizing their marketing. Celebrities like Bill Bixby and Isaac Asimov endorsed hardware from IBM and Tandy, respectively, but few human faces appeared on software boxes. Abrams thought some kind of industry typing standard might exist that could be licensed, but came up short.

“The other typing programs at the time, like Typing Tutor or MasterType, had very vanilla names and packaging,” he says. “They didn’t grab you. What we wanted was something to make people go, ‘Woah.’ We wanted people to pick the box up, turn it over, and read it.”

One day, Abrams and Crane went to Saks Fifth Avenue near their offices in Beverly Hills so Crane could buy his fiancée a present. At the perfume counter, they were assisted by a saleswoman who seemed to pique Crane’s interest. “He turned to me and said, ‘This is the person we should have.’ I thought he was crazy.”

The employee, Renee L’Esperance, was Haitian with limited English and 6-inch long fingernails. Abrams observed this incongruous feature as being contrary to what a typing master might opt for, but Crane was insistent. “He said it didn’t matter.”

Software Toolworks

The two went back the next day and offered L’Esperance $500 and a new suit in exchange for doing a photo shoot for the company. The photography took less than a day near the Century City towers, with Abrams’s 5-year-old son walking hand-in-hand with the faux typing teacher. Crane chose a fictitious name, Mavis Beacon, after singer Mavis Staples and the beacon of light she represented to clumsy typists everywhere.

The software had its face. Abrams, however, had no idea not everyone would welcome it. “We really didn’t understand the implications of putting a black woman on the cover of an educational product,” he says.

Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks began taking orders for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing in 1987. As with Chessmaster 2000, interest in a product that humanized a computer program was high. But when the company began circulating materials featuring L’Esperance, Abrams was shocked to see advance orders plummet by 50 percent.

“When they saw the package, orders got cut,” he says. “Even though this was 1987, people were afraid to carry an educational product with a black woman on it. They said people just wouldn’t buy it.” In New York, a major mail order and retail giant refused to carry it, citing a glut of typing product.

Opinions changed after The New York Times ran a glowing review of Mavis Beacon in its November 17, 1987 edition. “I got into the office and the phones were lit up asking where to get it,” Abrams says. “I decided to tell them to go to that retailer. By 11 a.m., a buyer for the company asked where he could get 150 copies immediately.”

From that point on, Mavis Beacon became an unstoppable force in software. Although the company never created a fake biography for Mavis or implied that she was a real person, a kind of mass delusion overtook both the media and the buying public. Teachers would call asking for her; Software Toolworks was inundated with requests for speaking engagements. L’Esperance, who had returned to the Caribbean shortly after the photo shoot, was the most famously anonymous woman in software.

“I thought I read somewhere that she had won a big typing contest, or that she ran a school, or something," a customer told The Seattle Times in 1995. "There really is no Mavis? I can't believe it."

Mavis Beacon would continue to be updated over the years, both in and out of the package: L'Esperance got regular Photoshop updates to upgrade her clothing or hairstyle. In 1994, The Software Toolworks was sold to the Pearson group for $460 million. “They were really interested in the educational side of the business,” Abrams says. “Mavis Beacon was our bestselling product, so you could make the theoretical statement it was a driving force behind the purchase.”

Abrams went on to invest in Intermix, the company behind the pioneering social network hub Myspace. While that’s an impressive milestone, he’s most often asked about the famed typing teacher he helped bring into the burgeoning home computer industry.

“To this day, people will say to me, ‘Why did Mavis disappear?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, she never really appeared.’”

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Overexposed: A History of Fotomat

Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
George, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Like the Golden Arches of McDonald’s that came before it, the familiar gold and pyramid-shaped roofs of Fotomat locations acted as a beacon. Instead of hamburgers, Fotomat was in the photography business, offering tiny huts situated in shopping plaza parking lots that were staffed by just one employee. Men were dubbed Fotomacs. Women were known as Fotomates, and management required them to wear short-shorts, or “hot pants,” in a nod to the strategy used for flight attendants at Pacific Southwest Airlines.

Cars pulled up to the Fotomat location and dropped off film they wanted processed. After being shuttled via courier to a local photo lab, it would be ready for pick-up the following day. And aside from selling film and a foray into renting videocassette tapes, this was all Fotomat did.

The idea, which was originally made popular by wealthy aviator Preston Fleet, was almost deceptively simple in concept and execution. At the height of Fotomat’s success in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were more than 4000 of the tiny kiosks located across the United States and Canada. But even with extremely low overhead—the little huts didn’t even have bathrooms—and a widespread love of photography, Fotomat fell victim to its own success. Its legacy even grew to include a former company president who became a federal fugitive from justice.

 

In the 1960s, Americans were fond of Kodak Instamatic cameras and film. People submitted the familiar yellow spools full of images from weddings, birthdays, trips, and other social events to photo processing labs, which might take days to return prints.

That’s where Preston Fleet saw opportunity. Fleet was a wealthy aviation enthusiast. His father, Reuben Fleet, had founded the Consolidated Aircraft Company—later known as Convair—which manufactured aircraft for World War II. Born in Buffalo, New York, Fleet moved with his family when the airplane business was relocated to San Diego. On the West Coast, he met Clifford Graham, an entrepreneur well-known in La Jolla, California, for his multiple business pursuits. Graham also had a reputation for carrying a gun and leading investors astray with questionable business practices.

Fotomat, however, was no hustle. The concept of a kiosk where people could easily drop off and pick up film that would be ready overnight originated in Florida, where Charles Brown opened the first location in 1965. After buying Brown's stock shares and arranging for a royalty, Fleet and Graham founded the Fotomat Corporation in 1967, with Graham president and Fleet vice-president. The concept grew quickly, boasting 1800 sites in its first 18 months of operation. Owing to its color scheme, people often thought Kodak operated the business, which led to complaints from Kodak as well as lawsuits. (Fotomat changed its design in 1970 to avoid confusion.)

While it was relatively easy to slot in a Fotomat hut in a parking lot, a business operating as an island surrounded by traffic had its problems. Remembering an old Fotomat in New Dorp on Staten Island, residents on Facebook recalled plowing into the kiosk or backing into it. (Most notably, terrorists destroy a Fotomat lookalike hut in the Twin Pines Mall lot in 1985’s Back to the Future.)

There was also the matter of bathrooms: They weren’t any. Employees often made arrangements to duck into local supermarkets or other stores when nature demanded it.

Hot pants and a lack of lavatories aside, Fotomat performed so well that Fleet and Graham decided to take it public in 1969, with each man holding stock worth $60 million at one point. But Graham’s controversial business practices made him a short-timer. In 1971, he was ousted from Fotomat over allegations he was misusing funds for his own personal gain, including his political interests—Graham was a supporter of both Richard Nixon and football player-turned-congressman Jack Kemp, who became an assistant to the president in the Fotomat corporation and referred football pros to become franchisees.

 

By the early 1980s, Fotomat—now minus Fleet, who had sold off his shares, and Graham—had opened over 4000 locations. That was both impressive and problematic. Fotomat had far overextended itself, sometimes opening kiosks so close to one another it cannibalized sales. There was also a growing number of pharmacies and grocery stores offering photo development services.

Fotomat locations were usually found in parking lots.David Prasad, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The real death blow for Fotomat, however, wasn’t over-expansion. It was the emergence of the one-hour minilab.

For an investment of $50,000 to $100,000, existing stores could install labs that could process photos in as little as one hour while customers shopped. Minilabs exploded from just 600 locations in 1980 to 14,700 by 1988. And since film never left the sites, it was less likely to get lost. It decimated Fotomat and its copycat businesses, with Fotomat moving from an impressive 18 percent market share in the photo processing industry to just 2 percent by 1988.

The company tried to recalibrate, converting home movies to videotape and even offering VHS rental during the VCR boom of the 1980s, but it wasn’t successful. Mass layoffs and closures followed. (Minilabs would have their own reckoning, both due to the rise of 35mm photography and digital photography.) In 1990, Fotomat was down to just 800 locations.

Fleet, who had exited Fotomat years prior—the company had been sold to Konica—was no worse for the wear. Prior to his death in 1995, he authored a book, Hue and Cry, which called into question the authenticity of works attributed to William Shakespeare. He was a founding director of the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 1963. He also helped popularize Omnimax, an immersive theater experience owned by Imax, installing a screen at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Space Museum in San Diego in 1973.

Graham’s future after Fotomat was far more colorful. Promoting a bogus gold mining operation he named Au Magnetics, he promised he could turn sand into gold. Instead, he was accused of fleecing investors. When a federal grand jury handed down an indictment that included charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion in 1986, Graham was nowhere to be found. Nor would he ever be located. Associates speculate he either successfully eluded authorities or was possibly killed by an investor who was unhappy with losing money.

As for the Fotomat locations themselves: Following the company’s collapse, many were repurposed into other businesses. Some became coffee shops; others morphed into watch repair kiosks, locksmith huts, windshield wiper dealers, or tailors. Presumably, none of the owners who took over mandated their employees wear hot pants.