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.”

Why You Should Never Charge Your Phone in Public USB Ports Without a USB Data Blocker

Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images
Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images

The USB charging ports that have popped up at airports, coffee shops, and even outdoor stations around cities in recent years are definitely a lifesaver when your smartphone is down to its last bit of juice. A dead phone is annoying at best and downright dangerous at worst, so it’s totally understandable why you’d jump at the chance to revive it at your earliest opportunity.

However, those public ports might not be as benevolent as they seem. According to Afar, hackers can load malware onto those stations—or on the cables left plugged into the stations—which can then deliver passwords and other data right from your device to the hacker’s. If you have used a public port recently, don’t panic; TechCrunch reports that these cases are fairly rare. Having said that, it’s definitely better not to risk it, especially considering what a nightmare it would be to have your identity stolen.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office explains that the easiest way to prevent becoming a victim of this type of scam, often referred to as juice-jacking, is simply to abstain from using public USB charging ports. Instead, invest in a portable charger, or plug your own charger into an actual AC power outlet.

But unoccupied power outlets are notoriously hard to come by in public places, and portable chargers themselves can also run out of battery life. Luckily, there’s a small, inexpensive device called a data blocker that will enable you to use public USB charging ports without worrying about juice-jacking. It looks a little like a flash drive with an extra slot, but it lacks the two wires usually found in USB chargers that can download and upload data. That way, your device will charge without transferring any information.

You can get two of them for $11 from Amazon here.

[h/t Afar]

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Scope Out the Best Christmas Light Displays in Your Neighborhood With Nextdoor's Cheer Map

can72/iStock via Getty Images
can72/iStock via Getty Images

For many people, driving around the neighborhood to admire the gorgeous light displays (or laugh at the garish ones) is a beloved holiday tradition. But if you live in a big city or only want to check out the most impressive displays, you might not know where to look. That’s where Nextdoor’s Cheer Map comes in.

Nextdoor is a free and private social network that lets you interact with other people in your neighborhood. It’s used in more than 250,000 neighborhoods around the world, and if yours happens to be one of them, you can use the Cheer Map to find the nearest Christmas light displays in your area. The map is crowdsourced and voluntary, so your neighbors can mark their own homes with a holiday lights icon. And if you're eager to flaunt your own festive decorations, you can mark your home on the map, too.

The results will look something like this:

A woman uses Nextdoor's Cheer Map app
Netxtdoor

You can access the Cheer Map online, or via an iPhone or Android device. To get started, click the Cheer Map link, and you’ll be prompted to create a free online account with Nextdoor if you don’t already have one (signing up is quick and easy). Once you’re logged in, a pop-up window will ask whether you plan on decorating for the holidays; select “I will” or “Not this year,” then click "Continue." If you don’t want to participate, you can also select “Skip” to jump ahead to good stuff and access the map of decorated homes in your neighborhood. And that’s it! If you selected “I will,” a colorful light icon will mark your home on the map.

For those who live in small towns, there’s a chance you’ll be the first person in your neighborhood to join the site. Unfortunately, that means your neighborhood won’t be officially “launched” on Nextdoor unless you get nine of your neighbors to sign up. But even if you aren’t able to use the Cheer Map this holiday season, you could help spread the word (and holiday cheer) to get your neighborhood on the map for next year.

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