Hardware

Geek Trivia: A dinosaur (Easter) egg

What world-famous command did the first IBM PC manual omit?

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia newsletter. Automatically sign up today!

Editor's note: While the Trivia Geek toils away on some exciting new Discussion Center features this week, we've pulled this PC-centric Classic Geek, which originally ran Feb. 11, 2004, from our archives to keep you entertained. Look for a fresh batch of Geek Trivia on March 23, 2005.


In late 2000, IBM announced that it was reversing its once legendary devotion to exclusively proprietary products and would invest $1 billion in open source software—a move many described as a first for Big Blue. But that's not the case.

Almost 20 years earlier, when IBM threw its immense weight into the home-computing ring with the debut of the first IBM Personal Computer, Big Blue also introduced the Purple Book—beginning a kind of open source movement arguably more influential than even the later arrival of Linux.

Never heard of the Purple Book? Perhaps you know it better by a more formal name: the IBM PC Technical Reference Manual.

It was available for every first-generation IBM PC, and it contained all the necessary schematics and data to build compatible hardware and software for the computer. Considering the fact that IBM constructed the IBM PC almost exclusively from off-the-shelf parts, the Purple Book made it possible for competing manufacturers to build "clone" PCs under their own imprints, making IBM's PC a de facto open source technology.

Even though IBM still retained all intellectual property rights to the PC design, Big Blue's desire for the product to become a standard—with other companies making compatible products that would support it—outweighed the potential market security of having a niche product.

Even though Apple, Commodore, and Atari made similar disclosures for their own early-generation home computer hardware and software, IBM's reputation and sheer industry power were what incited the PC revolution (with a little help from one Bill Gates and Microsoft, who licensed the early version of DOS that ran the first IBM PC to both Big Blue and the clone PC manufacturers). The Purple Book was the first sacred text of the personal computer movement.

However, the Purple Book didn't necessarily tell users (and clone-makers) everything. In fact, none of the documentation for the first IBM PC listed one particularly world-famous command, and its subsequent discovery and popularity have led some to characterize it as the first PC "Easter egg."

WHAT WORLD-FAMOUS COMMAND DID THE FIRST IBM PC MANUAL OMIT?

What world-famous computer command did the first IBM PC technical manual, the Purple Book, omit that was otherwise famous for exhaustively listing proprietary details about the technology?

The command is none other than the renowned "three-finger salute": [Ctrl][Alt][Delete]. For the original PC, this keystroke combination produced a warm reboot, and it's famous today for launching the Task Manager under more recent versions of Windows.

IBM engineer and member of the original IBM PC development team David Bradley is the original programmer of the [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] feature. He claims the command's absence from the Purple Book had nothing to do with secrecy or propriety, but it was due to a belief that the average user would never need it.

Bradley coded the command in a matter of minutes as a shortcut for PC testers to work around hardware and software lockups. With so much new (and far from foolproof) technology debuting for the IBM PC after its release, the three-finger salute proved equally useful for consumer users.

Word of the "secret" command leaked and found its way into PC magazines, presaging future "Easter egg" features in everything from operating systems to video games to DVD movies. For its part, [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] became famously indispensable in its own right. So famous, in fact, that the glory has rubbed off on the previously unknown Bradley.

The television game show Jeopardy has featured David Bradley and [Ctrl][Alt][Delete]in a Final Jeopardy question, and the now retired engineer has received numerous accolades and citations in PC history texts, events, and news stories for his creation of the warm reboot command. Oh, and he's qualified for Geek Trivia, too.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the March 2 edition of Geek Trivia, "All-stars in the sky." TechRepublic member Lordofkaos tried to catch me in yet another misuse of military terminology.

"Enlisting is used for the gentlemen who are not officers, and I doubt the military would 'enlist' a doctor."

However, just this once, I didn't step on the verbal landmine. The Online Dictionary of Military Terms maintains that enlistment means simply "the voluntary enrollment in the Army as contrasted with induction." Merriam-Webster offers a similar description. Officer commissions have no bearing on the verb enlist, even if the adjective enlisted refers to nonofficers.

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

Editor's Picks