A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth: The continuing saga of the Windows 3.1 blue screen of death (which, by the way, was never called that)


HN has been the only major site to report the history of the Windows 3.1 Ctrl+Alt+Del dialog correctly. But it may have lost that title due to this comment thread.

I read here that Steve Ballmer wrote part of [the blue screen of death] too.

The comment linked to one of may articles that erroneously reported that Steve wrote the blue screen of death.

Somebody replied,

Seriously?

linking back to my article where I set the record straight.

Undeterred, the original commenter wrote,

LOL! so far only MSDN has been refuting the claim.

and linked to two technology sites which reported the story incorrectly.

Just goes to show that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.

Oh, and by the way, the phrase "blue screen of death" did not really apply to the blue screen messages in Windows 3.1 or Windows 95. As we saw earlier, the Windows 3.1 fatal error message was a black screen of death, and in Windows 95, the blue screen message was more a screen of profound injury rather than death. (Windows 95 was sort of like the Black Knight, trying very hard to continue the fight despite having lost all of its limbs.)

The phrase "blue screen of death" was generally attributed to the blue screen fatal error message of Windows NT. In Windows 95, we just called them "blue screen messages", without the "of death".

I didn't expect this to become "blue screen week", though that's sort of what it turned into.

Comments (36)
  1. SimonRev says:

    This whole blue screen "of death" seems to have a bit of Microspeak to it.  I know that I sure called the Win95 Blue Screen the Blue Screen of Death, even though technically you could proceed from it.  It seems like most of my friends and coworkers did as well.  I don't think I had ever been exposed to Windows NT at that point.

  2. SimonRev says:

    As it is blue screen week, if you have the story of how Windows 8 wound up with a frowny face emoticon on it that would be entertaining.

  3. Mordachai says:

    It helps a ton if the lie is desirable.  People want to be confirmed in their beliefs, and/or are more readily willing to uptake information that appears to conform to their world view anyway.

  4. Joshua says:

    Does this mean the NT4 boot up screen was called the BSOB?

  5. Dan Bugglin says:

    Next step according to xkcd is that it gets posted on Wikipedia.

    https://xkcd.com/978/

  6. Jonathan Hamilton says:

    So why blue, anyway?

  7. Karellen says:

    If you're going to start judging news sites/forums on the most idiotic user-generated comments that exist therein, well, I think Sturgeon's Law is going to start looking wildly optimistic to you.

    Also, I don't think that this blog will fare terribly well, given some of the trolls that occasionally drive by… :-)

    [Agreed. That was really just my excuse to highlight a thread where the "sufficient repetition creates truth" effect has taken hold, despite other people's attempts to correct the error. -Raymond]
  8. Jeffrey Bosboom says:

    I am also interested to hear the Windows 8 :( story.

  9. gkdada says:

    @Joshua,

    BSOB……oh you mean a blue SOB. That was not invented until Avatar, I believe!

  10. Jo says:

    The MAZZTer: It alreay made it to Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/…/Blue_Screen_of_Death

  11. xpclient says:

    The 9x BSOD is considered the de facto original BSOD worldwide. Technically, it may not be death, just injury but I don't recall myself ever being able to continue using even a 32-bit protected mode program once the 9x BSOD was caused by whatever device driver or real-mode program. It may have been technically possible to continue normally but it rarely ever worked. The option that always worked was to Ctrl+Alt+Del again or press the Reset button on the hardware case. :)

  12. Simon.Rcl says:

    And the OP's response now has a response with a link back to this post. Horse, meet water…

  13. Alex says:

    "only MSDN has been refuting the claim", he says as he links to one of the few articles refuting his claim (which strangely enough sources another article incorrectly reporting the anecdote)

  14. Raphael says:

    Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Wilhelm Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg would approve.

    (For those not in the know, that's a former German federal minister. There's no Wilhelm in his name. That was made up by a Wikipedia editor, picked up by the media, and then cited by Wikipedia as proof.)

  15. Brian_EE says:

    The BSOD was usually followed by a reboot. So…. what's the history of the different bootup logo graphics for Windows? Did Bill Gates make the 4-colored black-bordered Windows 3.1 flag using Paint?

  16. Fernando says:

    @xpclient

    I was confronted before with "Guru Meditation" in the Commodore Amiga, that message always make me think What?!!!

  17. Yukkuri says:

    It is depressing how much people prefer a LOL HAHA OMG soundbite over the truth.

  18. Wear says:

    So, if I understand you correctly, what you're saying is Steve Jobs wrote the Windows 2.0 Purple screen of Unconsciousness text?

    The problem seems to be that some people erroneously refer to the windows 3.1 CTRL+ALT+DEL screen as a BSoD. The Wikipedia article has been updated to reference this series of events but still contains reference to the CTRL+ALT+DEL screen as a BSoD. It's the notification area / system tray issue all over again.

  19. Azarien says:

    This whole "Blue Screen Week" provoked Windows 7 on my laptop to BSOD today!

  20. bzakharin says:

    My memory may be faulty, but I'm pretty sure we called the Windows 3.1 screen the BSOD at the time, and certainly the Win 9x one. I first really experienced Windows NT (4) in 1999, but don't recall seeing its blue screen until Windows 2000 came along. I don't think I even made the connection between that screen and the name BSOD at first.

  21. Spalls Hurgenson says:

    Accurate or not, the blue screens in Windows 95 were called "Blue Screens of Death", by the users if not by Microsoft. I'm fairly sure that the "blue screens of notification" (or whatever you want to call them) of Windows 3.1 also bore that nomenclature, although that may have been retroactively tacked onto them after Win95's crashes became infamous. I remember also changing the colors of the BSOD, first by editing the System.ini directly and later by using the BSOD Properties applet.

  22. SomeGuyOnTheInternet says:

    Was the screen REALLY blue? What were the RGB values?

    GOTCHA!

    MS-DOS screens didn't have RGB values. It's only blue if it is COLOR 1

    And we all know that Raymond invented the COLOR 1

    (dear God, I just tried the COLOR 1 command on my Windows 8.1 box and it worked. Isn't that taking backwards compatibility a bit far?)

  23. Nick says:

    Raymond, I hope this doesn't reduce your willingness to post things like this in the future… :(

  24. Boris says:

    Google Books returns three results for 1995 (when the search is restricted through that year) but not before.

  25. GWO says:

    The idea that "Blue Screen of Death" only applied to NT Kernels is laughable – or, at best, Redmond/Kernel tinted glasses.  At the height of the phrases popularity, almost no-one one outside the IT industry was familiar with Windows NT – certainly not enough for its kernel panic page to enter the popular conciousness.

    When people said "Blue Screen Of Death", they were talking about the called the Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 blue screens, and pretending otherwise doesn't make it so. While it was theoretically possible to continue in those cases, in reality the system was usually completely unresponsive to such attempts, and even when successful, all people ever did was save their work and reboot due to incipient instability.

    [I did a search for the phrase "blue screen of death" among books from 1995 and 1996. The front-page hits are: Windows NT Server 4.0, Windows NT Server 4.0, Windows NT, Windows NT, Windows NT, Windows NT 3.5, Windows NT, Windows NT 4. No Windows 3.1, no Windows 95. -Raymond]
  26. Misc says:

    I had to laugh when the primary source provided is immediately dismissed (Probably because it's associated with Microsoft in some way; what would they know about BSoD?), and all facts for his claims come exclusively from secondary sources, whose headlines don't even match the bodies of the articles.

    Of course, it does say a lot about people and the media in general these days. The idea of reading deeply into something by checking its sources, or past the headline, seems to be a dying form. Journalism by press release springs to mind as another example.

  27. Yuhong Bao says:

    @GWO: Except the blue screen Raymond talked about was triggered by using Ctrl-Alt-Del in Win3.1 when an app was hung, allowing the application to be terminated.

  28. GWO says:

    @Yuhung_Bao I know how Win 3.1 handled C-A-D, and how to get a bluescreen.  The point is, using that method to terminate Apps simply didn't work reliably, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of it.

    If the App was hung you hit C-A-D and got the bluescreen to terminate the App.  And then, as often as not, the system became completely unresponsive and you had to press the big red switch.  The idea that the Win 3.1 blue screen didn't mean your system was basically hosed is historical revision.  Remember, Windows 3.1 didn't have functional memory protection — far worse that Win95, and that wasn't great — so the damage a buggy app could cause was basically unlimited.

  29. Boris says:

    Here's a nice graph from the Google Ngram Viewer:

    http://tinyurl.com/q2krdqo

  30. Count Zero says:

    From the Wikipedia article:

    "On 4 September 2014, several online journals […] attributed the creation of the Blue Screen of Death to Steve Ballmer (Microsoft's former CEO) while citing a source that never said such a thing: An article by Raymond Chen"

  31. Ben says:

    I am pretty sure I didn't start calling the Windows 95 screen a blue screen of death until after I had heard the term in reference to NT. But that testimony is worth next to nothing as it is nearly twenty years ago.

    Google ngrams says that the term "blue screen of death" didn't become popular until about 1998. It more or less tracks "Windows NT" but considerably lags "Windows 95". So I think it tracks the rise of NT within businesses rather than Windows 95 within homes.

  32. Wear says:

    @GWO The point is it's not a BSoD because you asked for it. You pressed the keys that caused that screen to be displayed. If the computer was dead it wouldn't be able to give you that screen when you asked for it. Yeah you're in a bad state because a program is hung and windows might not be able to help you but it's not dead yet.

  33. user says:

    If I were you, I would contract a presidential election campaign and claim that the opposite side is responsible form BSOD. Done wisely, you could make huge amount of money AND change the course of history!

  34. Nawak says:

    I also remember calling them "blue screens" and not "blue screen of death". I think I first read the term "blue screen of death" in some article that mocked Windows NT (and advocated Linux). I didn't start calling them BSOD because it was too long to say and because by the time I switched to NT (W2k at the time), they were much less frequent than what I experienced with W9x. (At the time, I was reinstalling Win98 every 3 weeks, certainly because of all the games and shareware of mediocre quality…)

  35. Innocent Bystander says:

    Hmmm, this one is interesting. Memory is a funny thing. I remember blue screens in Windows 95 (and 3.11), and in my mind I call it "o death", probably because in XP (and earlier NT) that's what Blue meant. I think my mind (and probably most people's has retroactively updated the term and this it "always was". It's come as quite a shock to realize that my memory is unreliable in this way!

  36. Joe says:

    For what it's worth, I started working with Windows NT 3.1 when it was in beta. I recall hearing the term "Blue Screen of Death" shortly before or just after it had been released from the [network] driver developers I was working with. (I also have a vague memory of Microsoft being initially annoyed at this term, but it may have just been our liaisons.) I generally still preferred, and still prefer, the shorter term "Blue Screen" since it says everything you need to know with fewer syllables.

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