Why does my computer have an Esc key?

Sadly, the origins of the Escape (Esc) key don’t lie in triggering dramatic, Bond-style ejector seats. The real reason is rather more prosaic, but no less important: the ability to stop what the computer’s doing and remind it that you’re the boss.

In 1960, influential IBM programmer Bob Bemer, who also spotted the potential Y2K problem as early as the 1970s, devised the key to allow early programmers to easily switch between different types of code. In the following decades of standardisation, however, Esc took on its current role: a handy way of saying “Oi you! Yes, you! Stop messing about!”

Simply put, when you press the Esc key (often in a fit of rage after your game has frozen for the umpteenth time), it generates the escape character, which forces the software to promptly stop, quit, exit, cancel or abort its current task.

That said, software developers have also appropriated the button for a host of other uses. In Windows, for example, pressing Ctrl+Esc will bring up the Start menu, while pressing Cmd+Alt+Esc on a Mac keyboard will cause the Force Quit dialog box to appear. Other uses for Esc include pausing computer games and switching modes in the Vi text editor.

Image: Ervins Strauhmanis on Flickr/CC

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Max Figgett

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