The trash can (known on European computers as the waste basket) was introduced into our understanding of computers by Apple in 1983, with the Apple Lisa and its Lisa Office System (LisaOS). It has been refined and its features have changed over the years, but the basic metaphor is the same: things you want to get rid of go into the trash can.

The trash can was placed in the bottom right hand corner of the screen by default, on the assumption that (using Fitts' Law) users would be more likely to discover and use this important utility if it were placed in a visible location and easy to mouse to (tossing the mouse into the corner is easy, and moving the 30 pixels diagonally isn’t much harder).

In its early stages, the trash can operated slightly differently than it does today, although it was still used to delete files and put away connected drives. In order to delete files, a user would first drag them to the trash can (or select the files and use a menu option to trash them). The trash can would be automatically emptied, and the files deleted, the next time that the computer booted. A user would have the time until then as a grace period to decide if he or she did not want the files to be deleted.

Because users would sometimes forget that they had trashed files and would become frustrated after losing important documents, Apple eventually updated the trash can to bulge outwards noticeably when files were in it. With System 7, the behavior was changed so that the trash can would need to be manually emptied.

The trash can was also used to put away disks. For years, Apple has been criticized for this decision, although there is a simple reason for it. Earlier versions of the Mac OS gave the user the ability to eject a disk from the computer using a menu choice; this would cause the disk’s icon to become grayed-out (“ghosted”), while its contents were preserved in memory. The user could put in another disk and move files between them without having to use an intermediary volume. When they were done, the ghosted icon could be dragged to the trash to remove it from memory. The Mac OS allowed users to skip the middle step by either selecting Put Away from a menu or by dragging disks directly to the trash; doing so would eject them without retaining them in memory.

Many users were unaware of the Ghosting feature, and others who discovered it by accident were frustrated and annoyed by the Phantom Disk Syndrome that seemed to be afflicting their computer. With System 7.6, Apple made Eject Disk and Put Away exhibit the same behavior; the user would have to hold down the Option key to ghost a disk. With the release of OS X, the ability to ghost disks was removed outright, and the Trash Can was modified so that it would change to the universal Eject symbol when disks were dragged to it.

When Microsoft made Windows 1.0, they copied as much of the look-and-feel of the Mac OS as they legally could. This did not, however, include the Trash Can: the concept was new enough that a direct analogue would probably have led to a copyright infringement lawsuit. However, the Recycling Bin was introduced to Windows with Windows 95. The main difference between the Microsoft and Apple models is that the Recycling Bin automatically deletes files when it exceeds a preset amount of disk space (10% by default), whereas the Trash Can requires periodic emptying by the user.

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