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The origin of Ctrl-Alt-Del, according to its creator

Have you ever wondered why we've always pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del to restart Windows PCs? (Or how about now that I've mentioned it?) For those with inquisitive minds, a new video from Great Big Story dives into the deep, dark secrets of Ctrl-Alt-Del's origins.

As is so often the case, the mystery motivation is just a pain in the ass that was in need of a quick fix: Dr. Dave Bradley was writing the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) for the IBM Personal Computer in 1980, and it was an understandably crash-tastic experience. "We had programs that ran most of the time, but when they failed the only way to reset the system was turn the power off, wait awhile, turn the power back on, and it would go through a very long self-test," Bradley explains in the video. 

That's no good when your system is crapping out every 5-10 minutes. A hard reset button was considered, but apparently determined to be too risky, and would still have resulted in long waits for the bootup process. Instead, the engineering team came up with a keyboard sequence that would reset the computer while skipping many of the startup tests, and would also be virtually impossible to mash accidentally. Thus Ctrl-Alt-Del was born.

As an internal development tool, Bradley said the key sequence was "no big deal" until the 20th anniversary of the IBM PC, which is when it became "sort of a cultural icon."   

"It was the simplest and easiest way to fix your problem," he says. "Hit control-alt-delete and start all over." 

Interestingly, Microsoft founder Bill Gates spoke somewhat less kindly about Ctrl-Alt-Del during a 2013 interview at Harvard (via Scientific American), not because it wasn't necessary or didn't work properly, but because of Bradley's insistence on making it so damn awkward to hit. 

"We could have had a single button, but the guy who did the IBM keyboard design didn't want to give us our single button," Gates said. "So we had, we programmed at a low level—it was a mistake."   

Thanks, Boing Boing

Andy Chalk
Andy covers the day-to-day happenings in the big, wide world of PC gaming—the stuff we call "news." In his off hours, he wishes he had time to play the 80-hour RPGs and immersive sims he used to love so much.