2000: When the World Went Crazy

The following is an article from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader The World's Gone Crazy.

Remember back on January 1, 2000, when a computer programming error turned the world into a backwoods wasteland of financial ruin?


In 1958 a computer programmer named Bob Bemer noticed a potentially catastrophic problem: The punch cards that were currently in use for programming only allotted two digits to represent the year, so it showed up as “58” rather than “1958.” Bemer was concerned that in the year 2000, as the numbers rolled over from “99” to “00,” computers either wouldn’t know how to handle double zeros, or they’d interpret it as the year 1900…and erase all of the data because it “hadn’t happened yet.” Even after Bemer lobbied his fellow programmers, IBM, and the U.S. government, none of them seemed too concerned about it. Surely by the year 2000, they figured, computers would be so advanced that the two-digit system would be replaced, wouldn’t it?

Not really. Saving space in long streams of computing code is important, so the two-digit system remained the standard for the next four decades. In fact, nobody really brought up the looming “millennium bug,” “century date change,” “faulty date logic,” or “Y2K” (short for “year 2000”) until the mid-1980s.


In his 1984 book Computers in Crisis, Jerome Murray foretold of a world that will come to a screeching halt. Because nearly every aspect of life was computer-controlled, Murray argued, all of those systems would shut down on January 1, 2000. Power grids would fail. Air navigation systems would crash, and so would airplanes. And all digital records—including the world’s most sensitive financial information—would be deleted.

After that, each subsequent year that loomed closer to Y2K brought even more dire predictions and tips to survive. For example, Y2K Family Survival Guide was a popular home video hosted by Mr. Spock himself, sci-fi icon Leonard Nimoy. He warned: “Elevators may stop, heat may vanish. Water delivery systems may not deliver water for cooking, drinking, and bathing.” Nimoy also warned that hospitals would be nonoperational, pharmacies would be locked down and unable to distribute vital medications, and nuclear power plants could stop working…or worse. They could all suffer core meltdowns.

(YouTube link)


The worldwide frenzy kicked in full force around mid-1998. Books such as Time Bomb 2000 and Deadline Y2K flew off the shelves while news analysts worried that the world’s governments would enact global martial law in order to stop the anarchy that was sure to commence when the computers all stopped working.

The United States Congress didn’t want it to ever get to that point. “We’re no longer at a place of asking whether or not there will be any power disruptions,” said Sen. Chris Dodd, “but we are now forced to ask how severe the disruptions are going to be.” So in late 1998, Congress passed the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act, which oversaw both the public and private sectors in getting all the computers to be compliant. Suddenly, millions of programmers got to work updating millions of computer systems. In the U.S. alone, more than $300 billion was spent to add in those precious two digits.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration conducted preparation drills in 27 major cities for any “national-security special event,” such as a terrorist attack or coup attempt. In fact, a CNN poll revealed that about two-thirds of Americans believed terrorists would attack the country on or around New Year’s Eve.

As 1999 scrolled toward its inevitable end, canned foods were purchased by the caseload. Sales of guns, generators, and bottled water spiked. Insurance companies sold millions of “Y2K policies.” All that was left to do was hope for the best…and be prepared for the worst.


At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, the world waited with bated breath to see what would happen. And as you no doubt remember, nothing much happened. The lights stayed on, planes didn’t fall out of the sky, and bank records stayed intact.

What’s interesting is that the countries that scrambled to be “Y2K compliant” (primarily the U.S. and Britain) endured about the same amount of glitches as the countries that did next to nothing to update their software, such as Italy and South Korea. And the glitches that did occur were relatively minor:

• Radiation monitoring equipment in Japan briefly failed, setting off an alarm at a nuclear power plant.

• A Japanese telecommunications carrier discovered a few date errors in its network, but services remained online and the problem was fixed in less than three hours.

• Bus ticketing machines stopped working in two Australian states.

• The IRS accidentally sent out a few tax bills for the year 1900.

• Ten percent of computerized cash registers in Greece printed receipts with the year 1900.

• A hydroelectric facility in Kazakhstan had to revert to manual operation for a few days.

• 150 slot machines in Delaware stopped working.

(Image credit: Bug de l'an 2000)

• The U.S. Naval Observatory, which runs the clock that keeps the nation’s official time, didn’t have problems. But its Web site did: A programming error resulted in the date being listed as January 1, 19100. The same thing happened to the Web site of France’s weather service and on AT&T’s site.

• A computer registering the first “millennium baby” born in Denmark incorrectly listed the baby as 100 years old.


The threat of the world plunging back into a new Dark Ages, and the hysteria that surrounded it, were over. But there was one positive result of what the Wall Street Journal called “the hoax of the century.” New York City established redundant, secondary computer networks to ensure that subways, phones, and banks would run in case of a Y2K shutdown. These networks remained online, and during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, lower Manhattan’s computer systems -most notably, those belonging to the financial institutions- did not crash, thus preventing what could have been a worldwide financial collapse.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader The World's Gone Crazy.

 Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Had you actually read the linked article, you would have found that Y2K had nothing to do with Iridium's failure, just like it had nothing to do with virtually any other failure that occurred. There were very few pieces of software that were date-dependent to the point of shutting down with an unrecognized variable, and even fewer that did not have mechanical redundancies. Most of the 'crucial' systems had no need for dates regardless. Y2K was a tech scam born from media attention.
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