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Unsung innovators: David Bradley, inventor of the "three-finger salute"

Figured out the control-alt-delete combo

By Gina Smith
December 3, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - David Bradley says he has accomplished many difficult feats in technology over the years, but becoming best known for inventing the so-called "three-finger salute" -- Ctrl-Alt-Delete -- to soft boot a computer wasn't part of his original career plan.

"In the grand context of the development of the PC, it was a tiny little thing. It happened to have been valuable ... but it has been blown all out of proportion," says Bradley, one of the 12 engineers on IBM's original development team for the IBM PC. His cult-icon status never fails to surprise him. In November 2002, "it was even a final Jeopardy question," Bradley says. Host Alex Trebek read: "IBM engineer Dave Bradley is called the father of this multikey combination."

"I don't mind it, but wow. In a 30-year career, people remember those five minutes?" he says, pointing out that in the scheme of things, the three-finger salute seems pretty unimportant.

It wasn't even designed with end users in mind.

"When we were doing the original IBM PC -- and consider this was a brand new hardware and software design -- it was hanging all the time," Bradley says. The only option engineers had to continue the work was to turn off the computer and start it again. That required at least a minute to boot back up because of the Power On Self Test (POST) feature that was built in. To this day, all Windows computers do a POST when they reboot; it's built into every ROM sequence.

But back in those early days, the need to reboot "would happen a lot," Bradley says. "Depending on what you were working on, that could be daily, hourly, even every five minutes if you were working on a particular shortcut."

Dave Bradley, father of the 'three-fingered salute'
Dave Bradley, father of the 'three-fingered salute.' Reprinted with permission of IBM.
So Bradley came up with the Ctrl-Alt-Del keystroke combination -- three keys distant enough on the keyboard to make it virtually impossible for someone to hit all three accidentally and simultaneously. "So, if you hit those keys, instead of taking a minute to start up the PC again, it would be much quicker -- the equivalent of turning the machine off and on without running POST."

The combination escaped from IBM labs and hit popular culture when application developers, in the days when programs ran on diskette, decided to publish the combination to help users start their applications faster.

After that, end users got used to it, and the rest is, well, history.

At the 20th anniversary of the unveiling of the IBM PC -- that was in August 2001 -- Bradley appeared on a panel featuring Bill Gates and other industry luminaries. "I thought we were there to have fun," Bradley says, remembering the moment that he joked with Gates about helping make his combo so well known.

Bradley laughs when recalling the joke. "I said, 'I may have invented it, but Bill [Gates] is the one who made it famous.' " In return, he received a glare from Gates.

Nowadays, Microsoft Windows intercepts the Control-Alt-Delete key combination and displays a pop-up window that allows users to shut down the PC or shows what programs are running.

Bradley muses that it's funny "that I got famous for this, when I did so many other nifty and difficult things." Among the Purdue Ph.D.'s accomplishments: He developed the ROM BIOS for the first IBM PC, led the development of the ROM BIOS and system diagnostics on the PC/XT, and was project manager for several PS/2 models. In 1992, he began working on higher-performing IBM systems built around the PowerPC RISC CPU.

Retired from IBM since 2004, Bradley has received engineering awards and will likely be immortalized as being part of the original IBM PC team. But like it or not, his place in computer history as the father of the three-finger salute is here to stay.

Read more about Hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.



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