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

Audio player loading…

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 (opens in new tab) 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 has been gaming on PCs from the very beginning, starting as a youngster with text adventures and primitive action games on a cassette-based TRS80. From there he graduated to the glory days of Sierra Online adventures and Microprose sims, ran a local BBS, learned how to build PCs, and developed a longstanding love of RPGs, immersive sims, and shooters. He began writing videogame news in 2007 for The Escapist and somehow managed to avoid getting fired until 2014, when he joined the storied ranks of PC Gamer. He covers all aspects of the industry, from new game announcements and patch notes to legal disputes, Twitch beefs, esports, and Henry Cavill. Lots of Henry Cavill.