The History of CTRL + ALT + DELETE

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

By Virginia Hughes

In 2013, Bill Gates admitted ctrl+alt+del was a mistake and blamed IBM. Here's the story of how the key combination became famous in the first place.

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 IBM’s 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, you’d 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 who’d someday be hounded to autograph keyboards at conferences. And he didn’t 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 company’s early, flawed attempt at a PC. It was an exciting time—computers 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 IBM’s 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 item 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 location—with 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 shelves—a 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 Bradley’s shortcut quietly lingering in their machines. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when Microsoft’s 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, Bradley’s little code was a big deal. Journalists hailed “the three-finger salute” as a saving grace for PC owners—a 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 didn’t 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.”

17 Things to Look for the Next Time You Watch Office Space

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Twenty years ago (yes, you’re really that old) Office Space forever changed how we look at cubicle life. Like a much funnier Dilbert meets Beavis and Butt-head meets the then-largely misunderstood world of Silicon Valley, the comedy movie from Beavis creator Mike Judge ably skewered everything from didactic middle-management bosses to chain restaurant uniforms. And it gave us a charming Jennifer Aniston love story plus a rap mini-music video dedicated to the destruction of malfunctioning printers.

For all that and more, the 1999 film that originally performed poorly at the box office has become a widely quoted cult sensation. Here are the interesting facts and references to look for the next time you watch Office Space.

1. It was shot very, very far from Silicon Valley.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Office Space keeps its setting purposefully vague, but the opening driving shots clue a perceptive viewer into the location: Notice the sign for Preston Road on Highway 289 in the background, which indicates that we’ve been dropped around Plano, Texas. The movie was shot in and around Austin, where Mike Judge lives, making him something of a Hollywood outsider. But Office Space is clearly attuned to the rituals and lingo of Silicon Valley’s tech scene. In fact, Judge worked as an engineer in the California area in the 1980s, which would go on to inform much of his satire, especially his popular HBO show Silicon Valley.

2. It was Mike Judge's first foray into movies ... and it didn't work out as planned.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Starting out as a self-taught animator in Texas, Judge made his name in entertainment with cartoons that aired on Saturday Night Live and, eventually, turned into his own MTV show. Beavis and Butt-head premiered in 1993, when the cable network’s scripted offerings were still in their infancy, and quickly became both a commercial hit and a cause of nationwide controversy. He went on to co-create Fox’s slightly more family-friendly King of the Hill, but Office Space marked his live-action directorial debut in film (he previously helmed the movie adaptation Beavis and Butt-head Do America). Made on an estimated $10 million budget, it earned only slightly more than that at U.S. theaters. Sadly, that failure has become something of a pattern for Judge’s movie work: Future efforts Idiocracy and Extract failed to catch on with initial audiences, though the former has also grown into a cult hit.

3. It didn't exactly make Ron Livingston a household name.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Office Space had all the makings of a breakout for its handsome, top-billed star, who was coming off a smaller part in the comedy phenomenon Swingers. But given its early commercial disappointment, he continued to seek out smaller parts and interesting, left-field projects like Adaptation. and The Cooler. He finally got his mainstream cred as the boyfriend of Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City (he's the one who broke up with her via Post-it note) with the massively popular horror flick The Conjuring. He's currently starring in two series: A Million Little Things and Loudermilk.

4. Initech has a very symbolic statue.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The statue outside the Initech office shows a square peg in a round hole. No coincidence, it’s a reference to the common idiom referring to an individualist who doesn’t fit into a particular social mold. That could describe Livingston’s Peter, his co-worker friends, Jennifer Aniston’s Joanna—or, more self-referentially, Judge himself, who has always made movies and series about outsiders.

5. You can tell a lot about Bill Lumbergh from his vanity plate.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Everything you need to know about Division V.P. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) is established in an early shot of him pulling into his reserved parking space at Initech in a blue Porsche with a customized license plate that reads, “MY PRSHE.” Low-key. (Also notice the lack of any regional designation on the license plates in the film.)

6. "TPS" has a real meaning.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Lumbergh’s single-minded obsession with the details of “TPS reports” drives much of the cubicle-set humor, but what exactly is a TPS report? Potential meanings abound, especially given that companies love an abbreviation, but Judge revealed that TPS refers to Test Program Set reports, which dated back to his engineering days.

7. The food at Chotchkie's sounds less than appetizing.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A sign at the restaurant promotes its “shrimp poppers,” a food name that leaves a lot to the imagination. Later, chipper server Brian highlights “pizza shooters” and “extreme fajitas.” Whatever a pizza shooter is, it can’t be good.

8. Diedrich Bader had a very specific look in mind for Lawrence.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Diedrich Bader, who plays everyone’s favorite beer-guzzling neighbor Lawrence, came to his Office Space role with clear inspiration. “What I really wanted to look like was somebody who loved the Allman Brothers,” he told The A.V. Club in 2012. Sounds about right.

9. There's a real Milton out there.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Judge based the vengeful staffer, also the focus of several of his animated shorts, on one of his real-life co-workers when he was an engineer. Judge asked the man how he was doing, and he responded that he was going to quit his job because his desk had been moved around too many times.

10. Jennifer Aniston helped the movie get made.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The cast of Office Space has one instantly recognizable name: Jennifer Aniston, who was by then of course already a superstar for playing Rachel on NBC’s Friends. In a reunion for the film, Judge thanked Aniston just for signing on (though he added that she was great in the part), saying, “It helped us put the studio at ease a little bit—at least they had one famous person."

11. Michael Bolton has embraced the punchlines about him.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Peter’s co-worker Michael Bolton (played by David Herman) hates the fact that he shares a name with a musician who is, in his words, a “no-talent ass-clown." While the real-life Bolton initially seemed peeved about the mockery, he now signs Office Space DVDs for fans.

12. Chotchkie's is a thinly veiled TGI Fridays.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The chain restaurant by the office is notable not just for its fried food but for its emphasis on “flair” worn by the servers (15 pieces of flair is the minimum). Office Space is clearly mocking TGI Fridays, whose staff used to dress with seemingly endless buttons and ornamentation. TGI Fridays actually phased out flair by 2005, supposedly as a result of the movie.

13. Y2K makes a cameo.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Peter tells Joanna while having lunch that in his job he updates software for the “2000 switch.” In 1999, the impending change of the millennium was in fact a massive headache for tech companies and their programming of dates, a phenomenon that became known as Y2K.

14. The movie reintroduced red Swingline staplers.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Milton’s beloved red stapler was actually painted that color by the prop department, so that it would pop on the screen. As it was one of the more hilarious throughlines in Office Space, viewers started to seek it out in real life. The brand Swingline, which had phased out red staplers, decided to bring the product back. Design-minded executive assistants everywhere can thank Judge.

15. Mike Judge is hiding in plain sight.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In an uncredited role, the writer and director plays Joanna’s boss at Chotchkie's, reprimanding her about her lack of flair. (Though it’s hard to recognize him under the mustache and wig.)

16. Judge is a not-so-secret hip-hop head.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Hip-hop is repeatedly played and referenced throughout Office Space, particularly gangsta rap, which was ascendant in the '90s. The famous printer-smashing sequence is set to the Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.” Also notice Michael Bolton rapping along to Scarface while driving in the movie’s opening. Judge has cleverly curated hip-hop in much of his work, from rap videos in Beavis and Butt-head to a collaboration with Danny Brown for Silicon Valley.

17. Milton foreshadows the climax a lot.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Milton mentions the possibility of burning down the Initech office several times before actually doing it, making it perhaps the least surprising act of arson depicted in film.

BioLite Has Designed a Headlamp That Won't Irritate or Slip Off Your Head

BioLite
BioLite

Headlamps are convenient in theory. Instead of fumbling with a flashlight or your phone in the dark, you can strap one to your head and walk your dog, do some late-night grilling, or venture around your campsite hands-free.

But in reality, the awkward design—with a bulky light that digs into your skin and slides down your forehead—cancels out much of the product's appeal. Luckily, it doesn't have to be this way, as the folks at BioLite have demonstrated with their reinvented headlamp.

The BioLite HeadLamp 330, which debuted on Kickstarter in 2018 and is now available on Amazon, promises to make you forget you're even wearing it. Inspired by modern wearables, BioLite has retooled various elements of the clunky traditional design to make it as comfortable as it is functional.

A man wearing a red HeadLamp 330
BioLite

The ultra-thin light sits flat against your skull, which means you won't have any painful marks in the middle of your forehead when you take it off. The band itself is made from a moisture-wicking fabric that feels good on your skin, even when you're working up a sweat. And unlike conventional headlamps, BioLite has redistributed the power source to the back of the head in its design, balancing the weight and taking care of any slippage issues.

As is the case with other BioLite products, technology is an essential part of the design. The 330-lumen lamp projects light up to nearly 250 feet in front of you. There are variable lighting settings, too: You can opt for either a white spot or floodlight, both with dimming options, or a strobe light feature; there's also a red floodlight. It can run for three and a half hours at maximum brightness or 40 hours at minimum brightness, and when it needs to be recharged, you can just plug it into a micro-USB source like a solar panel or powerbank.

Get your own BioLite Headlamp for $49 on Amazon. It's available in in ember red, ocean teal, sunrise yellow, or midnight gray.

Teal headlamp.
BioLite

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