The History of CTRL + ALT + DELETE |

The History of CTRL + ALT + DELETE

In the spring of 1981, David Bradley was part of a select team

working from a nondescript office building in Boca Raton, Fla. His task:

to help build IBMs new personal computer. Because Apple and RadioShack

were already selling small stand-alone computers, the project (code

name: Acorn) was a rush job. Instead of the typical three- to five-year

turnaround, Acorn had to be completed in a single year.

One of the programmers pet peeves was that whenever the computer

encountered a coding glitch, they had to manually restart the entire

system. Turning the machine back on automatically initiated a series of

memory tests, which stole valuable time. Some days, youd be rebooting

every five minutes as you searched for the problem, Bradley says. The

tedious tests made the coders want to pull their hair out.

So Bradley created a keyboard shortcut that triggered a system reset

without the memory tests. He never dreamed that the simple fix would

make him a programming hero, someone whod someday be hounded to

autograph keyboards at conferences. And he didnt foresee the command

becoming such an integral part of the user experience.

Bradley joined IBM as a programmer in 1975. By 1978, he was working

on the Datamaster, the companys early, flawed attempt at a PC. It was

an exciting timecomputers were starting to become more accessible, and

Bradley had a chance to help popularize them.

In September 1980, he became the 12th of 12 engineers picked to work

on Acorn. The close-knit team was whisked away from IBMs New York

headquarters. We had very little interference, Bradley says. We got

to do the design essentially starting with a blank sheet of paper.

Bradley worked on everything from writing input/output programs to

troubleshooting wire-wrap boards. Five months into the project, he

created ctrl+alt+del. The task was just another to tick off his

to-do list. It was five minutes, 10 minutes of activity, and then I

moved on to the next of the 100 things that needed to get done, he

says. Bradley chose the keys by locationwith the del key across the

keyboard from the other two, it seemed unlikely that all three would be

accidentally pressed at the same time. Bradley never intended to make

the shortcut available to customers, nor did he expect it to enter the

pop lexicon. It was meant for him and his fellow coders, for whom every

second counted.

The team managed to finish Acorn on schedule. In the fall of 1981,

the IBM PC hit shelvesa homely gray box beneath a monitor that spit out

green lines of type. Marketing experts predicted that the company would

sell a modest 241,683 units in the first five years; company execs

thought that estimate was too optimistic. They were all wrong. IBM PC

sales would reach into the millions, with people of all ages using the

machines to play games, edit documents, and crunch numbers. Computing

would never be the same.

And yet, few of these consumers were aware of Bradleys shortcut

quietly lingering in their machines. It wasnt until the early 1990s,

when Microsofts Windows took off, that the shortcut came to prominence.

As PCs all over the country crashed and the infamous blue screen of

death plagued Windows users, a quick fix spread from friend to friend:

ctrl+alt+del. Suddenly, Bradleys little code was a big deal.

Journalists hailed the three-finger salute as a saving grace for PC

ownersa population that kept growing.

In 2001, hundreds of people packed into the San Jose Tech Museum of

Innovation to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the IBM PC. In two

decades, the company had moved more than 500 million PCs worldwide.

After dinner, industry luminaries, including Microsoft chairman Bill

Gates, sat down for a panel discussion. But the first question didnt go

to Gates; it went to David Bradley. The programmer, who has always been

surprised by how popular those five minutes spent creating ctrl+alt+del

made him, was quick to deflect the glory.

I have to share the credit, Bradley joked. I may have invented it, but I think Bill made it famous.


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