Where do keyboard shortcuts come from?

The origin story and next era of keyboard shortcuts.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve used a keyboard shortcut. Ctrl+C, perhaps?

For years, Macs and PCs have offered shortcuts (AKA hotkeys) to help users execute various functions.

If you’ve ever wondered where the heck they come from, WSJ’s Dalvin Brown tracked down a legend in the keyboard shortcut game to get the scoop.

The 1st keyboard shortcuts…

… were created at Xerox in the 1970s, and include functions like cut, copy, and paste.

But the crown jewel of shortcuts, Control-Alt-Delete, was created in the early 1980s by David Bradley, an IBM engineer.

Bradley said it only took 5 minutes to dream up the iconic combination, which became a hit among IBM employees, then got programmed into the company’s original PC.

Beyond Control-Alt-Delete…

… Brown found keyboard shortcuts tend to follow similar origin stories — starting with either a problem that needs solving, or a function that needs to be easier to execute.

The challenge for engineers is threefold:

  • Make shortcuts easy to remember
  • Ensure they make sense with existing keyboards
  • Develop combinations that don’t trigger other shortcuts

They also need to factor in how frequently a shortcut will be used. Shortcuts that are used more often tend to include simpler key combinations (e.g., copy and paste), while those that are less frequent tend to include more keys (e.g., force-quitting an app).

Modern apps are ushering in a new era of shortcuts

One of the biggest trends in productivity software is using shortcuts. Companies like Notion, Superhuman, and Figma have created their own shortcuts to help users save time by ditching the mouse.

If you’re looking to start using your keyboard more effectively, Use The Keyboard is a website that lists shortcuts from a range of popular apps and websites.

If you’re more of a DIYer, you can always take your keyboard into your own hands — both Mac OS and Windows allow users to create their own shortcuts.

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