The origin of CTRL-ALT-DELETE

You may not have ever thought about it, but the far-too-often-used keyboard combination of Control + Alt + Delete had to have been brought into existence by some random coder at some point in technological history. But wait, it wasn’t just a random coder. The keystroke combo is attributed to [David Bradley]. He was one of the original designers of the IBM Personal Computer. You can even hear his own recount of the story in the video after the break.

He came up with the idea after growing weary of waiting for the Power-On Self Test (POST) routine to finish during each reboot of his software testing regiment. We remember the old days of slow hardware and can understand his frustration at the lost time. He decided to throw in a shortcut that allowed the software to reboot without power cycling the hardware. The original implementation used CTRL-ALT-ESC, but was later changed so that one frustrated keyboard mash couldn’t accidentally reboot the system.

[via Gizmodo]

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]


  1. caleb says:

    actually i had wondered. intresting tho

  2. Robert Ely says:

    I’m ashamed to admit i never wondered about this. Just one of those things that was so embedded in my day-to-day (least in windows 95) I never even thought about it.

  3. Anon says:

    Bill doesn’t seem to like the joke.

  4. Phil says:

    And wheres the CTRL+SHIFT+ESC coming from? And also the CMD+ALT+ESC?

  5. paul w says:

    I’d been using Ctrl+Alt+Del since x86 architecture. Good joke.

  6. emilio says:

    don’t forget the old X-server “Vulcan nerve pinch” (at least in IRIX):

    LCtrl + LShift + F12 + KP/

  7. zool says:

    in your picture you use the left control and alt

    i use the right control and alt so i can do it with one hand

    how many people use the left vs the right?

  8. Jac Goudsmit says:

    The original keyboard of the IBM PC looked nothing like the one on this article. There’s a more accurate picture on Wikipedia:

    As you can see, there was no way to do the “three finger salute” with one hand on that one.

    More info about IBM keyboards here:


  9. EvilNCarnate says:

    I use my right as well, though that was why we all call it the “three finger salute” for windows.

  10. Steve Cook says:

    The look on Gates’ face in this video is priceless.

  11. Tim says:

    Mac still uses CMD + ALT + ESC :-)

    Really like the joke he pulls in the vid though

  12. Christopher says:

    Hmm, I always used the Del key on the numpad so all keys are on the bottom row.

  13. supershwa says:

    Heh nice joke. Thanks for the history lesson; never knew the origin. :P

  14. Brennan says:

    For some reason I almost always use my left hand for ctrl-alt and my right hand for delete. The right hand 3-finger method is just clumsy and pretty much requires that you look at the keyboard.

  15. Ben Eills says:

    If you regularly “mash” your keyboard to hit Ctrl+Alt+Esc simultaneously, you’re doing it wrong.

  16. Jordan Gray says:

    I just use Ctrl+Shift+Esc and have always used that. I just assumed (since it was easier) that it was the original).

  17. Hey, you left out the very best part of the wikipedia article:

    [quote]Bradley is also known for his good-natured jab at Bill Gates, at that time the CEO of Microsoft, and also the creator of many of Microsoft’s programs: “I may have invented Control-Alt-Delete, but Bill Gates made it famous”

  18. D’oh, that’s what you get when you skim with javascript off, you miss the video if it isn’t explicitly stated that it exists in the post.

  19. Eages says:

    Hahaha, I think the joke was totally accidental, yet it was the most hilarious thing I’ve heard in a while. Nice post, thanks.

  20. Zeno Arrow says:

    The joke wasn’t accidental.

  21. Bob says:

    You know your a computer nerd when your the only one in the room cackling at the joke at bill’s expense. (this just happened to me, had to explain the joke to a couple ppl.)

  22. jh says:

    Bill deadpan response makes it even better.

  23. Nick Short says:

    “He came up with the idea after growing weary of waiting for the Power-On Self Test (POST) routine to finish during each reboot of his software testing -regiment-.”

    I don’t mean to be a grammer Nazi, but the word you meant was regimen, not regiment. A regiment is a military unit.

  24. svengali says:

    They were mashing the keyboard so much that they needed to change the shortcut? o.0

  25. Gert says:

    Oh Snap!

  26. AndroidCat says:

    The Apple II had soft reset button on the keyboard, with a setting to also require the CTRL key to be pressed. It was still too easy to accidentally hit that combo, and I’m sure that was reflected in IBM’s three finger salute design.

  27. Apple Dumplin says:

    you need 2 fingers to break an apple II, 3 to reset it … It was sorta easy to do on the older keyboard design (I guess, I never had an issue as I generally dont meat hand my keyboards), but maybe not so much on the newer apple II keyboards where reset is off in left field and it takes an extra stretch to get your pinky out there

  28. Fredrick says:

    What about escape+control+tab+alt+both shifts+num lock+the little squiggly?

  29. m4rcu5 says:

    That comment of Bradley towards Bill just made my day :-)

  30. j0z0r says:

    @Nick Short
    Not trying to be a spelling Nazi, but “grammer” should be grammar.

  31. Toe says:

    I took an embedded programming class lead by him in college at NCSU. He had some notoriety in the engineering dept due to his IBM days and the ctrl+alt+del addition. He was kind of a lazy professor, but his stories were entertaining.

  32. Johan G says:

    I have to second the comments about Bradley’s joke and Bill’s response. ;-)

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