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The Escape Key and The Guy Who Invented Ctl-Alt-Del….and Why

October 8, 2012

I worked in the PC Group, wisely sold to Lenovo years ago.  On the 20th anniversary, they looked for interesting tidbits from those who invented the PC.

David Bradley worked down the hall from me.  He’s the guy who invented Ctl-Alt-Del.  I asked him why and he told me DOS 1.0 keep crashing, so he wrote a quick and dirty program to restart the computer quickly without having to turn it off.

Later, David was kind enough to give me a copy of his personal copy of DOS 1.0 and Visicalc, a program for which I was a giant at using.  I still have it in my original IBM-PC I picked up off the trash pile while working there.

His best line though was when they had a reunion of the PC development team and Dave said to a reporter in front of everyone that he wrote the program, but Bill Gates made it famous.

THE ESC KEY

Bob Bemer invented this key.  I never worked with Bob, but per the NY Post, it goes like this:

The key was born in 1960, when an I.B.M. programmer named Bob Bemer was trying to solve a Tower of Babel problem: computers from different manufacturers communicated in a variety of codes. Bemer invented the ESC key as way for programmers to switch from one kind of code to another. Later on, when computer codes were standardized (an effort in which Bemer played a leading role), ESC became a kind of “interrupt” button on the PC — a way to poke the computer and say, “Cut it out.”

Why “escape”? Bemer could have used another word — say, “interrupt” — but he opted for “ESC,” a tiny monument to his own angst. Bemer was a worrier. In the 1970s, he began warning about the Y2K bug, explaining to Richard Nixon’s advisers the computer disaster that could occur in the year 2000. Today, with our relatively stable computers, few of us need the panic button. But Bob Frankston, a pioneering programmer, says he still uses the ESC key. “There’s something nice about having a get-me-the-hell-out-of-here key.”

I, KEYBOARD

Joseph Kay is a senior scientist at Yahoo! Research.

Why do outmoded keys, like ESC, persist? Our devices have legacies built into them. For more than a hundred years, when you wanted to write something, you sat down in front of a typewriter. But computers look different now — they’re like smartphones. It will be interesting to see whether in 10 or 15 years the whole idea of a keyboard will seem strange. We might be saying, “Remember when we used to type things?”

How would we control computers in this future-without-typing? Think of the Wii and Kinect, or even specialized input devices for games like Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution. All might be bellwethers for the rest of computing. We might see a rise in all sorts of input, like voice recognition and audio control — think about Siri.

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