At the end of the 20th century, there was a very specific panic about how civilization was going to crumble: all of the computer programs that we relied on were going to crash do to two missing digits. The Year 2000 Bug, or Y2K as it became best known, saw industries scrambling to update their networks for compliance, regular citizens stockpiling supplies, and everyone just a little unsure on how concerned they should be. In the end, everything was fine. But here’s the story behind the end-of-the-world scare that made it difficult to party like it was 1999.
How it all began: a storage issue
Back when computers were first being developed, storage space was a major issue. There was no such thing as multi-terabyte hard drives and cloud storage. In 1960, a single megabyte of storage space was worth more than $5 million, so saving space was of the utmost importance. Computer engineers came up with a clever way to cut down on storage costs by using only two digits to represent the year. For example, instead of writing out 1973, coders shortened it to "73," which did save a lot of space overall. This tactic was great for cutting costs, and no one thought their same programs would be in use decades down the road.
Computer date error
Starting in the 1960s, the world found itself in a rapid transition to the digital era. By the end of the 20th century, nearly everything of importance was controlled by computers, including banks, transportation, hospitals, government operations, and basic utilities. Since coding systems weren’t updated very much, computer scientists were still using two-digit dates. But as the millennium approached, they realized their mistake.
The theory was that once the clock struck midnight and the year 2000 arrived, computers using the two-digit dates would misinterpret '00' as 1900 and either glitch (best case scenario) or crash (worst case). Any industry that depended on preciseness in time and date functions seemed to be at risk, in particular the banking, healthcare, and travel sectors. The fear that our technology might effectively implode right as the ball dropped became known as the Y2K Scare, or the Millennium Bug.
As soon as word started getting out about the potential collapse of computer systems, the general public reacted much the way they do with these things: preppers prepped, some people panicked, conspiracy theories abounded, and much of the public paid it little to no mind. But for those who took it seriously, there was certainly the subset who thought Y2K would be the end times. According to John Koskinen, the chairman appointed to the official Y2K council, "Eight to 10 percent of the population were fairly confident that this was going to be an apocalypse."
Once the error was discovered, businesses and governments around the world took action. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act to encourage companies to share Y2K data. The European Commission pushed member countries to cooperate in their preparations for the impending threat, and the U.N. even held an international conference to share information and discuss crisis management options.
In total, an estimated $300 billion was spent worldwide to upgrade computer systems to allow for four-digit dates. Almost half of that was spent in the United States alone.
The millennium arrives
On the night of December 31, 1999, many people were nervous. Were the warnings that the power grid would short-circuit and air traffic control systems would go haywire pan out? TIME magazine, which had written about Y2K for months, set up shop in the basement of their building with gas-powered generators, self-contained computer systems, and plenty of emergency equipment. They wanted to be prepared to produce the first magazine of the new millennium even in the event of any catastrophic electrical or communications breakdowns.
Of course, the New Year came and went without much commotion. The majority of computer systems adapted without any problems. The apocalypse was averted; the world kept spinning.
Was it a hoax?
The ease with which computer systems adapted to the year 2000 led many to believe that the entire Y2K scare was just a big hoax. Thinking about the hysteria of 1999 makes people look back and laugh. Was there really anything to worry about at all?
In short, yes, there was. The Y2K bug did have the potential to crash many major computer systems, but engineers, analysts, and other IT professionals worked tirelessly in the months leading up to the millennium to update, test, and retest all the systems that keep our industries in motion. "We found bugs and we fixed them," one tech manager at an insurance company told the BBC. "It's because we did such a good job that people who weren't involved think there was never a problem."
Ironically, these coders and engineers did such a good job preparing for the 1999-to-2000 switch that nothing major happened, and some of the public concluded that the entire thing was a big hoax.