A generation ago we were faced with one of the most dire issues this world had ever faced (and that was not Philip J. Fry being frozen at Applied Cryogenics). As the clock turned from 1999 to 2000 no one was sure what was going to happen with the Y2K bug. It was possible that computers the world over would shut down or go haywire, planes would fall out of the sky and all of the world’s nuclear weapons would explode. It led to missed dates with flutists with the Boston Pops Symphony, oh wait that was a cartoon. Would we be victims of our own technology and hubris? Of course we know that did not happen, so 20 years later we will take a retrospective and ask if mankind will need to go through this again?


The problem was a simple one: To reduce memory usage early computers chopped the 19 off of the year. That was not really an issue in 1970 or 1980 but as a new millennium approached it could be. In early computers memory was expensive, in the 1960s it cost $1 per bit and computer memory was measured by the kilobyte. Chopping those two digits off of a date may not seem like much but over the course of a large file it could amount to significant memory savings, and thus real world savings.

The issue was first identified in 1958 while programmer Bob Bemer was working on genealogical software but he couldn’t get the attention of anyone, from IBM to the US government. By 1985 though the issue was receiving attention but it wasn’t until the 1990s when it finally received serious action. When tested some computers simply changed the date from 99 to 00 while others changed it from 99 to 100. Either way this would cause a logic failure which could lead to complete system failures. What would happen after that was the subject of many doomsayers, even ones not dressed like a chicken.

The potential ramifications of Y2K of course caught the attention of governments around the world. The thought of anything from the Social Security database crashing to nuclear warheads being released had many politicians shuttering. Despite the scaremongering, some people said that Y2K would not be as big of a deal as they were making it out to be but there was an issue for sure. For any system that was based on a date going back one hundred years was a real issue. From calculating interest to doing routine computer maintenance, having the correct date was a big deal.

Not The First Time

This was not the first time an issue tied to two digit dates was observed. In 1975 an operating system crashed when the date overflowed the 12-bit field. A change of format was required to fix this issue. Also right before Y2K there was worries about what would happen on September 9, 1999, or 9-9-99 since it would conflict with the 9999 date value, which was used to specify an unknown date. This was not expected to cause issues with the programming but could confuse anyone who accessed this database.

The Fixes

Several different solutions were used to fix the issue. The most common was that the missing two digits of the year were added but this was a costly and time consuming solution to ensure the conversion was complete. Dates could also be compressed into binary numbers which allowed for the retention of data structure. 

For some legacy systems the year was converted to three digits, that is 1999 became 099 and 2001 became 101. This method simply kicked the can down the road as any database fixed using this solution will encounter a problem in 2899, but then no one alive today will be here to deal with that. For other systems the 2 digit year was retains in a technique called Windowing, which was done by installing small patches of code so programs could determine the century only when necessary. 

Last, programmer Rudy Rupak created a downloadable solution called the Millenium Bug Kit. This was one of the first downloadable solutions available ever on the Internet and as many as 25% of all computers in the world used it.

January 1, 2000

As the clocks turned on January 1, 2000 all eyes were first on Australia and Japan. A handful of issues were found but the power stayed on and the world was not destroyed. As the New Year hit Russia and Europe with only minor issues most people’s fears were allayed. By the time the clock struck midnight here in the US most people were confident nothing serious was going to happen. 

There were some glitches though. Radiation monitoring equipment in Japan failed and an alarm sounded at the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant sounded at 12:02 for ten minutes. At the Shika Nuclear Power Station the bug caused the plant’s alarm system to go offline and later in the day one of the systems at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant failed. Some communications equipment failed in Japan but were fixed within a few hours. In Australia some bus ticketing machines stopped working. In France the national weather forecasting service Météo-France showed the date as 01/01/19100. Here in the US the US Naval Observatory master clock listed the date as 1 Jan 19100. US Spy satellites stopped working for three days showing only indecipherable information though the problem was later found to be caused by the patch of the Y2K bug and not the Y2K bug.

Humorously one New York man was charged $91,000 for renting the John Travolta movie The General’s Daughter though the issue was fixed after garnering national headlines. In Denmark the first baby born in the new millennium had it’s birthdate get automatically changed to 1900. At the German Deutche Oper company dates were reverted back to 1900 causing all employees to be the age of their birth year (ie if they were born in 1980 they were 80 years old) temporarily preventing them from collecting on government subsidies. Also in Germany one man benefited greatly finding that his bank account had been credited about $6 million. His last transaction recorded was in 1899 but the issue was corrected quickly and the man’s new fortune did not last long.

True International Cooperation

The Y2K fix was one of the rare instances of complete international cooperation as it was in everyone’s best interest to make sure that the issue was taken care of. It was estimated that over $300 billion was spent to fix the issue. Backup and contingency plans were put in place had the fix not worked and it is believed that this redundancy helped to avoid a global financial meltdown following the 9-11 terrorist attacks since backup systems were installed at different locations for the many financial institutions in Lower Manhattan.

Not everyone was worried. Countries like Russia, South Korea and Italy did little to prepare and in the end had no more issues than other countries around the world. This prompted many to say that Y2K was nothing more than a hoax leaving many survivalists with basements full of survival kits and a lot of egg on their faces. They too missed their chance of hooking up with flutists as well.

Will We Have To Do This Again

It is possible and we may have to go through it again in our lifetimes, in 2038 to be exact. In Unix signed 32-bit integer time format the latest time it can show will be on Tuesday January 19, 2038 at 3:14 AM. After that a signed integer overflow will occur and can result in a loss of data or a system crash. 

The systems most affected will be where the Unix system is embedded, like transportation or automobiles. It can potentially affect GPS receivers, anti-lock braking, stability control systems, traction control and automatic four-wheel drive. These systems can potentially last a lifetime and it is possible that some systems vulnerable to this will still be in use come 2038. At least like with Y2K a solution is being worked on now. Whether planes will fall out of the sky then is debatable though. We’ll see if the same doomsaying is done then too.

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