20 Years Later: Looking Back on the Y2K Scare
Twenty years ago, folks weren’t just prepping the champagne and confetti for New Year’s Eve. Some people were stocking up on canned food and toilet paper, preparing for disaster to strike at the dawn of the new millennium. And others were doing all they could to prevent the "Y2K Bug" from causing a total meltdown.
If you endured the build-up to New Year’s Eve in 1999, you’ll probably remember exactly what happened when the clock struck midnight: not much. So what was all the hoopla about? Join us for a look back on the Y2K scare — the imminent disaster that never happened.
1999 Comes to a Close
In 1999, JLo's "Waiting for Tonight" saturated the airwaves, SpongeBob SquarePants appeared on television for the first time and Apple launched the iBook, a consumer-friendly laptop. The future seemed exciting — full of possibility. At least, it should have felt that way.
The Y2K “Bug”
So, why Y2K? It’s shorthand for referring to the year 2000. On the podcast Headlong: Surviving Y2K, the host Dan Taberski interviews Dave Eddy, the person seemingly responsible for the catchy moniker. According to Eddy, we use Y2K "because I’m lazy — because it’s 67% more efficient."
Saving Space Messes With Time
Although the "Y2K Bug" — or any computer bug — evokes something nebulous and complex, the design compromise that spawned the Year 2000 Problem is actually very simple. It boils down to how calendar data is stored and formatted.
Programming Shorthand Catches Up
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, computer memory and storage were both rather scarce — and costly. In 1998, Alan Greenspan recounted, "[At the time] I was proud of the fact that I was able to squeeze a few elements of space out of my program by not having to put a 19 before the year."
Overhyped or Simply Ignored?
According to tech consultant Peter de Jager, the tech industry was happy ignoring the computer-date bug. When he conducted interviews for this "Doomsday 2000" article in 1993, he found these experts to be pretty complacent — 2000 was so far away.
A Threat to Banks
The Millennium Bug posed a threat to a number of institutions. Chief among them were insurance companies, hospitals, government agencies and — perhaps most memorably to those who lived through the scare — banks.
Trouble for Transportation Services & Power Plants
Those born before the new millennium may also remember the panic surrounding transportation. Because transit operations rely so heavily on accurate times and dates, rumors that planes would drop from the sky led to folks avoiding airports on New Year’s Eve.
A Software & Hardware Problem
The U.S.’s then-Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said, "The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of the El Niño and there will be nasty surprises around the globe." With this looming fear in mind, both software and hardware companies — and special committees — hurried to find solutions.
The U.S. Prepares for the Worst
Tech prognosticators assured the general public that fixes would be in place before the new year, but fear persisted. While some countries did little to prepare for the alleged threat, others — like the U.S., Australia and Uganda — spent millions.
A Y2K FAQ for We, the People
To help with the outreach portion of the plan, the U.S. government set up a site called Y2K.gov. The site — and several agency-specific offshoots — made press releases more accessible and allowed users to access detailed FAQs on everything from how the Millenium Bug would potentially impact utilities to what items were best to stock up on in preparation.
A Storm on the Horizon
At the time, the U.S. government didn’t have a federal agency in place that had authority over the internet. To mitigate this issue, the White House held an Internet Y2K Roundtable on July 30, 1999. (Nothing like a last-minute solve.)
As chatter surrounding the "Y2K scare" increased, folks prepared by withdrawing large sums of cash from at-risk banks and stockpiling canned goods and emergency supplies. According to National Geographic, Y2K prep was not unlike hurricane prep for most Americans.
Preparing for the New Dark Age
When even the Red Cross is hawking "Y2K: What You Should Know" pamphlets and FEMA is telling you to stock up on essentials, it’s difficult to tell just how prepared you should be. For some, being Y2K-ready went beyond crank radios, flashlights and beans.
Bonkers for Bunkers
The Atlanta Business Chronicle perhaps captured the bunker craze best with its eye-catching headline "Cold War chills revisited: Y2K brings back bunker mentality." And nothing screams "Cold War bunker" more than the country’s most robust contingency plan — Mount Weather, located just 50 miles from D.C.
Or Just a Scare Campaign?
In December 1999, traffic to the U.S. government’s Y2K website increased 25-fold compared to the month prior, registering about 150,000 hits per day. Even Y2K doubters couldn’t be 100% sure about the post-midnight world.
The Religion of Y2K
Needless to say, the Y2K problem inspired a great deal of conspiracy theories (and attracted theorists). Apart from survivalists, other fringe groups, from fundamentalist religious organizations to communes and cults, cropped up, emphasizing the apocalyptic themes associated with Y2K.
The End of Days
According to National Geographic, evangelical Christian religious leaders went so far as to say that the problems stemming from Y2K — the death of computers, the general collapse of society and so forth — would "trigger the coming of the Antichrist."
While some took the doomsday vibes as a sign to repent for their sins or join off-the-grid communes, others took this message as a sign of hope. As reported by the Headlong: Surviving Y2K podcast, Adair LaVan believed the End of Days would occur in Jerusalem — and saw the nearing millennium as an opportunity.
Time Magazine Adds Credence to Scare
But why did this "Millennium Madness" take such a hold? Well, news about the Y2K bug — and its potential ramifications — was everywhere, from radio talk shows to infomercials. And then, on January 18, 1999, TIME published the now-iconic apocalypse cover (pictured), perhaps inadvertently adding credence to the scare.
The Y2K Scare Hits the Entertainment Industry
In addition to a bevy of Y2K "disaster" books, two movies capitalized on the daily Y2K water-cooler talk. Y2K: Year to Kill (1999) centered on the premise "when the world's computers crash, a group of thugs go on a crime and murder spree." Think ‘90s The Purge (2013).
The Bug That Almost Launched 1000 Lawsuits
An article from SFGate published in June of 1999 voiced a very real concern: "No one knows how severe Y2K disruptions may be — computers operate everything from cash registers to financial markets." According to the publication, damages — if the unimaginable happened — could reach the $1 trillion mark.
September 9, 1999
Even before the January 1, 2000, deadline, another date loomed large over the tech industry. And, understandably, it was kept much more hush-hush than the Y2K problem. That other looming date was September 9, 1999 — better known by computers as 9/9/99.
January 1, 2000
On December 31, 1999, New Year’s Eve carried on as normal. Crowds swarmed on Times Square in New York City. Folks wearing donned (ridiculous) "2000"-shaped eyeglasses and bedazzled party hats. At midnight, the ball dropped — and people clinked champagne glasses.
Japan’s Nuclear Facilities
While power plant failures or blackouts didn’t shutter the entire United States as doomsday prognosticators predicted, a few oddities happened overseas. In Japan, a series of minor issues hit the Ishikawa Prefecture Monitoring System, which monitors radiation in the area surrounding the Shiga nuclear power plant.
When asked about the possibility of Y2K-related computer failure launching nuclear missiles, Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Colonel Alexander Somov simply said, "We’re confident there’ll be no danger when our systems make the transition into the year 2000." However, the U.S. government wasn’t taking any chances with Y2K.
The Cost of Y2K
Whether or not Y2K was overblown or an actual averted crisis remains an issue of debate for some to this day. Was it just great prep work? If the U.S. and other governments hadn’t solved the two-digit date issue, would things really have gone south?
IT Figures Into It
Despite the cost of Y2K, the event proved to companies just how critical IT professionals are to business operations. Computerworld notes that "there was no way they could not understand how important IT [is] to the company. That was the positive side [of Y2K]."
Pop Culture Joke Status
Now, the night on which nothing happened is more fondly remembered as a comic moment in history rather than a deftly averted crisis. Satirical news program CBC Radio presented a story that imagined a man named Norman Feller emerging from his underground, Y2K-compliant bunker in 2013.
Y2K stopped looming large rather quickly. People moved on and forgot about the threat. Banks and hospitals were fine. And people who felt they’d been wrongly convinced of the (allegedly) impending Y2K disaster tried to return all those survival supplies and canned goods they’d amassed.
Enter the 2038 Problem
So, everything is fine now, right? Well, we’re safe from these non-bugs until at least 2038, which marks the end of Unix time. Okay, so what’s Unix time? It’s a system used to describe a particular point in time by recording the number of seconds that have elapsed since the Unix epoch (aka 00:00:00 on January 1, 1970).