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Inventor of ctrl-alt-delete is logging off
Jan. 28, 2004
Toronto Star

It's time to give the three-finger salute.

The man who invented the most dreaded keystroke in history is retiring.

David Bradley, inventor of the control-alt-delete key combination, is leaving IBM Corp. after nearly 30 years at the computing powerhouse.

The electrical engineer developed the command while working on IBM's first PC in 1980. He needed a fast way to restart the computer from the keyboard when something went wrong.

"At the time, we didn't think it would be a cultural icon," Bradley said in an interview.

Today, control-alt-delete is known around the world as a command of last resort for dealing with computer glitches and faulty software.

"The intention was to be cryptic," he said. "It was a key combination that was the moral equivalent of turning the power off and back on again, so it was not an action to be taken lightly. It wasn't something you wanted to happen accidentally."

Bradley decided the best solution was to choose keys that were very far apart. The keyboard he was working on had fewer keys than the ones we use today, he said. There was only one set of control and alt keys and they were on the left-hand side of the keyboard.

"The delete key was about as far as way as you could get," Bradley said. "You really had to use both hands and reach out to do it."

Bradley, who currently resides in Chapel Hill, N.C., said he briefly contemplated using the plus key instead. But he felt the delete key made more sense.

Back in the early days of personal computing, hitting control-alt-delete meant you would likely lose a lot of your work.

Bradley said the key combination was originally created for IBM developers it wasn't intended for use by the average user.

The engineers had to reboot their computers quite frequently while working on the personal computer and those reboots ate up a lot of time. Bradley would have to turn off the computer, wait a few seconds, turn it back on again and then wait for the machine to run some basic diagnostics. The whole process could take a full minute. Several other companies already had personal computers out on the market. Apple Computer Inc. had the lead and time was of the essence if IBM wanted to gain a foothold in the fledgling computer market.

Bradley's new command proved perfect for the engineers because it allowed them to restart the machine while skipping all of the initial testing procedures normally associated with a reboot.

Microsoft later picked up the control-alt-delete command for use in its operating system. The software company needed a way to deal with software problems that might cause a computer to freeze up. Microsoft needed a command that would let a computer user shut down a malfunctioning machine gracefully. Simply hitting the power button was too abrupt and caused problems when the complex operating system was restarted.

David Weil, executive director and curator of the Computer Museum of America in San Diego, Calif., said the control-alt-delete command is so well known because everyone has experienced a dysfunctional computer and been forced to hit the keys. It's a memorable experience, if only because it is so frustrating.

"You don't want to have to deal with control-alt-delete in the average course of the day," Weil said.

Today, control-alt-delete is also used to call up a variety of critical operating system controls, including the command to change passwords.

But it remains best known as the final option for machines on the fritz.

"I might have invented control-alt-delete but, as I like to say, Bill Gates made it famous," Bradley said.

Bradley contributed much more than just the one command during his long career in computers. As one of the original 12 engineers who worked on IBM's first personal computer, Bradley wrote all of the basic input and output commands for the machine.

He has also written two books on personal computers and is an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University.

Friday is Bradley's last day at IBM.

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