CLOSE
Thinkstock
Thinkstock

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.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
The Long Now Foundation, Vimeo
arrow
technology
Jeff Bezos Is Helping to Build a Clock Meant to Keep Time for 10,000 Years
The Long Now Foundation, Vimeo
The Long Now Foundation, Vimeo

Few human inventions are meant to last hundreds of years, much less thousands. But the 10,000 Year Clock is designed to keep accurate time for millennia. First proposed in 1989, the long-lasting timepiece is finally being installed inside a mountain in western Texas, according to CNET.

The organization building the clock, the Long Now Foundation, wanted to create a tribute to thinking about the future. Founded by computer scientist Danny Hillis and Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand, the group boasts famous members like musician Brian Eno and numerous Silicon Valley heavyweights. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is putting up the $42 million necessary to complete the project, writing that “it's a special Clock, designed to be a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking."

Measuring 500 feet tall when it's completed, the clock will run on thermal power and synchronize each day at solar noon. Every day, a “chime generator” will come up with a different sequence of rings, never repeating a sequence day to day. On specific anniversaries—one year, 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years, 10,000 years—it will animate a mechanical system within one of five rooms carved into the mountain. On the first anniversary, for instance, the clock will animate an orrery, a model of the solar system. Since they don’t expect to be alive for many of the future anniversaries, the clock’s creators won't determine animations for 100, 1000, or 10,000 years—that'll be left up to future generations. (To give you an idea of just how far away 10,000 years is, in 8000 B.C.E., humans had just started to domesticate cows for the first time.)

Though you can sign up to be notified when the clock is finished, it won’t be easy to see it up close. The nearest airport is several hours’ drive away, and the mountain is 2000 feet above the valley floor. So you may have to be content with seeing it virtually in the video below.

Clock of the Long Now - Installation Begins from The Long Now Foundation on Vimeo.

[h/t CNET]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Tynker
arrow
technology
Barbie Is Now Giving Coding Lessons
Tynker
Tynker

Mattel wants to help 10 million kids learn to code by 2020, and the toy giant is enlisting one of its most career-focused assets: Barbie. According to Engadget, Mattel is working with the coding education company Tynker to make seven Barbie-themed computer programming lessons.

Barbie has been a pilot, an architect, the president, and a computer engineer, so there may be no better character to teach kids the joys of coding. The lessons, arriving in summer 2018, will be designed for youngsters in kindergarten and up, and will teach Barbie-lovers more than just how to make apps. They’ll use Barbie’s many careers—which also included veterinarian, robotics engineer, and astronaut—as a way to guide kids through programming concepts.

An illustration depicts Barbie and her friends surrounded by cats and dogs and reads 'Barbie: Pet Vet.'

A screenshot of a Barbie coding lesson features a vet's office full of pets.

There are plenty of new initiatives that aim to teach kids how to code, from a Fisher-Price caterpillar toy to online games featuring Rey from Star Wars. This is the third partnership between Mattel and Tynker, who have already produced programming lessons using Hot Wheels and Monster High.

Kindergarten may seem a little soon to set kids on a career path as a computer programmer, but coding has been called “the most important job skill of the future,” and you don’t need to work for Google or Facebook to make learning it worthwhile. Coding can give you a leg up in applying for jobs in healthcare, finance, and other careers outside of Silicon Valley. More importantly for kids, coding games are fun. Who wouldn’t want to play Robotics Engineer Barbie?

[h/t Engadget]

All images by Tynker

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER