Stroke of Genius

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a news item about the retirement of David Bradley, the “inventor” of Ctrl-Alt-Delete.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a news item about the retirement of David Bradley, the “inventor” of Ctrl-Alt-Delete. Mr. Bradley, who is 55, recently retired from IBM Corp., bringing to end a 28-year career with the company.

On the off chance that you’ve had the good fortune never to need to know about Ctrl-Alt-Delete, it is the combination of keys used—often as a last resort—to restart a stalled PC. Initially designed for use by IBM developers, the key combination was later adopted by Microsoft for use in the Windows operating system. “I might have invented control-alt-delete but, as I like to say, Bill Gates made it famous,” Mr. Bradley said recently. (The Microsoft founder was apparently not amused by the comment.)

What’s ironic about Mr. Bradley’s creation is that—while it is one of the world’s most well-known and often-used keystrokes—it was invented in the span of about five minutes. Mr. Bradley himself acknowledges that he put very little thought into the creation, other than to select a combination of keys that would be nearly impossible to select accidentally (at the time, most keyboards only featured one Ctrl key and one Alt key, and they resided on the left side of the keyboard, far away from the Delete key). A few minutes of code writing and, Bam! instant progress.

And though the Ctrl-Alt-Delete command represents but a sliver of Bradley’s overall contribution to the computing world—in addition to writing all of the basic input and output commands for IBM’s first PC, he has written two books and teaches at North Carolina State University—it is the five minutes that he spent writing the command that has defined who he is, in the eyes of many.

For me, David Bradley’s story is a testament to the somewhat erratic nature of progress. The vast majority of progress is understated, time-consuming and evolving in nature. Take the plating industry, for example. There’s no doubt that we’ve seen remarkable progress in plating over the course of the last fifty years, but one would be hard-pressed to pinpoint a single development that changed the industry overnight.

Even events that the media portrays as benchmarks in progress—such as the landing of the rovers on Mars—are usually regarded not so much as overnight achievements, but more as the payoff to decades of man hours and thousands of equally important—though less publicized—developments.

But then, just when you think you’ve defined the nature of progress, somebody spends five minutes coming up with something like Ctrl-Alt-Delete, and Bam! the way we go about living our lives or doing business is altered, almost instantly.

Is all of this to say that Mr. Bradley’s invention is somehow more profound or more important than the developments in plating or space exploration? Certainly not. It is easy to get wrapped up in the genius (or sometimes luck) behind instant progress, but we should not forget that progress that comes as a result of blood, sweat and tears is often far more rewarding.