According to Bill Gates, the most common keyboard shortcut to stop any frozen PC was created by mistake. Gates later blamed IBM for mix-up. Here’s how the mistake in programming became the go-to PC fix.
In 1981, David Bradley was part of a team working on a project IBM’s new personal computer.The project known under code name: Acorn, was a rush job because Apple and RadioShack were already selling personal computers. These projects usually took three-five years to complete, Acorn had to be completed in a year.
The Acorn programmers hated that when the computers encountered a coding glitch, the entire system had to be rebooted. When the computers were turned back on, automatic memory tests would start. “Some days, you’d be rebooting every five minutes as you searched for the problem,” Bradley says. These time-consuming tests were taking away from valuable progress in creating the personal computers we use today.
Bradley created a keyboard shortcut that allowed for a complete system reboot without the memory tests. The simple fix made Bradley a programming legend. He didn’t expect the simple shortcut would become a vital part of personal computer use for year to come.
Ctrl+Alt+Del was created during the fifth month of Acorn. For Bradley, creating the shortcut was just another item to mark off his 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.
But why Ctrl+Alt+Del? Bradley says he the decision was strategic. He chose those particular keys as it seemed unlikely that they would be accidentally pressed at the same time. Bradley says he didn’t intend for the shortcut to become basic computer knowledge, and created it only for his fellow programmings to save time.
Acorn was finished on time. In the fall of 1981, the first IBM PCs hit stores. Marketing at IBM didn’t anticipate their version of the personal computer to take off.
The shortcut wasn’t widely known to consumers when the first IBM computers were released. It wasn’t until Microsoft’s Windows operating system became widely used that the shortcut become common knowledge.The quick fix spread and soon the once-secret shortcut was hailed “the three-finger salute” by journalists.
In 2001, Bradley joined BIll Gates on a panel at the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the IBM PC. The first question for the panel was not for Gates, but for Bradley, who has always been surprised by the success and popularity of his almost forty-year-old keyboard shortcut.
“I have to share the credit,” Bradley joked. “I may have invented it, but I think Bill made it famous.”