Y2K was not a hoax. It was real, but it was (mostly) averted.

Bernard Salt writing in The Australian today implies that Y2K was a hoax:

Do you remember the Y2K bug, the computer programming flaw that threatened to reset the digital world to the year zero at the turn of the century? Hospital life support systems might stop. Planes might lose navigation. Everyone’s bank accounts might reset to zero.

The issue surfaced in popular culture in the mid-1990s; it reached fever pitch in the 12 months leading up to the new millennium. And then on New Year’s Day 2000 … nothing.

Phew, that was close. Just as well governments and big business invested millions if not billions in consulting advice to correct the situation. Here was a looming calamity that only geeks could understand. Our job was to comply and to pay up so as to avert disaster.

But I am of course being unfair to the peddlers of Y2K calamity — they were simply feeding the natural market for fear of the future. Why, no sooner had Y2K receded than the threat of pandemic via avian flu and then severe acute respiratory syndrome was scaring us witless. Same modus operandi as Y2K: credible narrative that only geeks can understand. It’s all so terribly empowering for geeks.

This gets my goat.

Y2K was very real. The effects were real, but mostly averted — precisely because it was taken seriously.

So what was the Y2K bug?

It’s not a problem that, as Mr Salt claims, only geeks can understand.

By the late 20th century, computerisation was becoming commonplace.

Because it was common for people to write years as two digits, and computer memory in the 70s and 80s was scarce, and forward planning wasn’t great, so it became common to write computer programs to use two digit years; to assume that the year was 19xx.

By the late-1980s, it was clear that ticking over into the year 2000 would be a problem for those computer systems using two digit years. It was drummed into us when I started my IT degree in 1989 that many of these systems would still be around in the 21st century, and they had to be written to take dates beyond 1999 into account.

My desk at work, circa 1994

A simple example: To calculate how many years since one was born, calculate the Current Year minus Birth Year. For me in 1995, this was 95 – 70 = 25. Easy. But what happens in the year 2000? 00 – 70. Either the computer would stop with an error (software can be a bit delicate, and prone to just stopping if something unexpected happens) or it might conclude that my age is minus 70.

It was blindingly obvious that with so many systems out there at risk of not coping with the year 2000, something had to be done. It was widely recognised, and acted upon.

How to fix it

In many cases it wasn’t really known what would happen, so a lot of testing occurred to show which systems were Y2K compliant, and which were vulnerable.

If vulnerable, broadly, there were three ways of fixing it:

  • Expand date fields to four digit years — complicated at times, and not always possible
  • Put in logic that said anything between 00 and (say) 49 was to be treated as 20xx rather than 19xx — easier in some cases, but this would cause problems with birth dates in particular, for older people. It also means the problem isn’t really fixed, just deferred.
  • Entirely replace/rewrite the software.

Of course any of these activities involves a lot of testing to make sure it all works.

How it played out

In the late 90s I worked at a company whose software was mostly written in the early-80s, running Point Of Sale and back-office operations for thousands of Australian service stations.

They considered rewriting their applications completely, which would have had the benefit of moving from old DOS/character-based interfaces to a more modern Windows graphical interface, but they are hugely complex applications, and there wasn’t time.

I worked for them writing Windows programs that replaced a small portion of their systems, but mostly they did a lot of work fixing their existing software instead. (As of 2015, they still haven’t been entirely re-written.)

Right across the IT world similar activity was happening. To their credit, big companies (often with the oldest, most trouble-prone systems) worked the hardest to avert a problem, knowing that if their computers fell over in January 2000, it could have significant economic impact.

Of course some people worked very hard to prevent issues, and of those, some made a lot of money in the process. (In Australia there was a mini-boom in IT at the time, was many programmers also worked on implementing the GST, which came in July 2000.)

A few (especially smaller) organisations largely ignored the Y2K problem, or just hoped it wouldn’t cause major issues. But most either replaced or fixed their systems.

Some put in operational precautions — for instance in Melbourne, the New Year’s Eve trains stopped for about 5 minutes around 1am on 1/1/2000 (because 1am Summer time is midnight Standard Time) for fear there could be power or other disruptions. (Spoiler: there weren’t.)

IBM PC

So what happened in 2000?

Despite some panic beforehand, most of the big and important systems kept working more-or-less to plan precisely because the problem had been recognised and acted upon.

But some systems either failed in non-critical ways, or produced slightly odd results. Here’s a documented minor example: in early 2000 I received an insurance renewal notice — from a small insurance broker — advising me to start paying from March 1900.

Insurance renewal

There were numerous other cases of date errors causing issues, for instance:

The only potentially worrying events occurred at nuclear power plants in Japan. Radiation-monitoring equipment in Ishikawa failed at midnight but officials said there was no risk to the public. Alarms had sounded at another plant at the same time but no problems were found. — BBC

But mostly the problems were only minor and/or amusing.

Could it happen again?

Individual computer systems have the potential for similar failures due to data fields overflowing. For instance a system that uses a unique number for each transaction but only allows ten digits could have problems after they tick over from transaction number 9,999,999,999.

Some systems track dates by seconds from a specific date, and those fields could overflow in the future — for instance on 19 January 2038, versions of Unix that use 32-bit time stamps will stop working.

It was real

In his opinion piece, Mr Salt appears to be playing to The Australian’s conservative audience. Although he doesn’t mention climate change, he seems to be saying that because we can’t see the effects of Y2K, swine flu or peak oil, none of them were or are real, basically saying we should dismiss any doomsayers who come along proclaiming there are big problems ahead.

The reality is we need to examine the evidence and be rational about it. Some problems are exaggerated, some are real.

Some were real and were avoided. Y2K was one of those. The problem was not conceptually complex; you don’t need an IT degree to understand that if nothing had been done, there could have been big problems.

Daniel Bowen
Bach. of Computing (Information Systems), Monash University, 1992.

  • Quite a good list of Y2K failures from 1999… with a bunch of ill-informed “hoax!” comments at the bottom.
  • “Disaster averted. … Y2K was boring because the period of time leading up to it was very non-boring.” — Raymond Chen
If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment. You can subscribe via feed reader RSS, or subscribe by email. You can also Follow me on Twitter, or Like the blog on Facebook.

22 Replies to “Y2K was not a hoax. It was real, but it was (mostly) averted.”

  1. Salt is good at demographics. He should leave anything else alone. As I remember it, the media in 1999 raised our concern levels to very high about Y2K. By the time NYE came about, the expectations of disaster had been considerably lowered. It was no surprise to me when we returned home after midnight and the electric was working. I picked up the phone and it was working. I switched the computer on and it was happy. I shall take you at your word and agree that large and important institutions made sure that the change to the next century went smoothly, and that had they not been proactive, life could have been problematic.

    Australians being Australian, I don’t think worried overly about Y2K once New Years Eve was underway. I do confess though, at the time, I had been concerned at some point in 1999, but more from an inconvenience aspect rather than a calamity angle.

  2. I remember being affected by the Y2K bug well before the start of the year 2000. The first credit card I got with an expiration date after 2000 was rejected as expired by a few systems. It took me a while to realize why.

    One time I went canoeing with a first-time canoer. He was instructed to keep his balance over the center of the boat lest it tip over, but he kept leaning way over to one side or the other when he paddled, forcing me to lean the other way to compensate. When I complained to him, he said “No, it’s okay! It’s righting itself automatically!” I had to get out of the canoe and let him capsize it to convince him that it wasn’t “automatic”. Mr. Salt’s words give me a similar sense of exasperation.

  3. The fact that Bernard got your goat means he achieved his aim – being provocative. That’s how he can get $15,000 as an after dinner speaker.
    Accuracy takes a back seat.
    Your summary of Y2K is very interesting. The organisation I was working for in 1999 spent a lot of money on Y2K fixes so in the end it was a bit of a fizzer. Thank goodness!

  4. There were tens of thousands of medical image processing computers that would not work if the year 2000 was entered for the date. If a date in 19xx was entered, they worked fine. But no insurance company or medical facility would be confident if a film was digitally labeled as 1900 or some variant for a year 2000 diagnosis or claim. Imagine the calculations for gestational age of a fetus if “today’s” date is Jan, 3, 1900. Y2k problems in company products never made the nightly news, after all, who would advertise their problems to the public at large? Only the foolish or the incompetent.

  5. People like Bernard think that the problem of global warming will fix itself – just like the Y2K problem which magically went away because “someone else” did all the hard work.
    Back in the mid 90’s, I pointed out to the ASX that one of their data feeds had a protocol problem. As I recall it, a “date or time of last sale” message had a field could be interpreted as either YYMMDD or HHMMSS depending on the value. Once Y2K ticked over, the date or time field would be ambiguous for the next 24 years. Because my job changed direction, I never did find out how they resolved that one. They would have had to replace the message with a new, unambiguous message and liaise with all their customers who took the data feed to use the new message type and stop using the old one. Would have cost a fortune in coding and testing, spread amongst possibly dozens or hundreds of customers.

  6. At that time I work for a large telecom company and we started working on fixes in 1998. All fixes were tested and loaded in operating sites by mid 1999. Still I recall lots of precautions being taken. The only software I ever saw fail was a fax/answering package on my Gateway PC. It used to sort the faxes/messages with latest at the top, but after Y2K the sort was all over the place. It still took the messages and received faxes OK. Unfortunately the company that wrote it had gone out of business and so no replacement was available.

  7. As a footnote, on Nine 5pm news last night, Bernard Salt was given the title, “David Kalisch, Statistician” by mistake.

  8. I recall my father frantically testing and auditing his company’s software to deal with this and eventually coming to the conclusion that due to some design decisions they’d made earlier, the changes required weren’t as drastic as they’d feared.

    This company’s primary product was a DOS based point-of-sale software for service stations and was originally written in the late 80s. They were based in Geelong and were named after an air current. We wouldn’t happen to be talking about the same company would we?

  9. I’ve never understood the insistence that it was a big IT hoax because nothing happened.

    One doesn’t go into surgery to save your life, and then because you live insist there was never a need for surgery…

    I was personally involved with fixing a lot if code, identifying systems that needed outright replacing, and yes a few things that slipped through and caused a bit if he’ll. Heck in one case we had an ancient PABX with an equally ancient voicemail system (OS/2) based that, while the PABX itself has no date system and was fine, the voicemail would utterly die – there was absolutely nothing we could fix or replace for that so ultimately the solution was to find a year in the past where the days of the month aligned with 2000 and then set the date back (bought another five or whatever years, was then done again, and then I believe whole phone system finally replaced).

    I had realised myself in the early nineties the problem existed from a few bits of software I had written myself – for example one managed the calibration schedule for medical equipment that can vary from every few months to every few years. During testing, and obviously advancing dates to verify various calibration schedules were advancing, I discovered my proprietary database would be utterly corrupted from major computational overflows arising from my mis-use of two digit years. Thankfully I realised way back then and changed all my fields and calculations to use full four digit years and it never needed fixing again.

    Things did go wrong though, but thankfully in the larger scheme of things quite minor BECAUSE we poured so much work into fixing it.

    Those that disbelieve should go pick up an old ninetees PC, install an original copy of windows 95 or 3.11, install an old copy of Excel, and see how you go working with it (at all or with a spreadsheet full of date algorithms)… The results would be rather different than an updated PC…

  10. I remember being taught COBOL and industrial strength business programming for systems development in the hope that the graduates of our course would do Y2K work on graduation but I did not get any work at all. My first job in IT was not until 2000.

  11. My very first job out of uni in 96, I mean 1996, was to fix a newspaper database that had y2k issues. Nothing serious, just wonky search results when using dates past 1999.

    A bit before 2000 an engineer came and changed the software in my buildings lift. Apparently if you missed a regular service it was programmed to stop at the nearest floor, open the doors and refuse to move till it had been serviced. Their testing showed the old software would glitch out after 2000 and refuse to acknowledge a service had taken place recently.

  12. It was hugely overblown. I was in I.T at an investment bank during the period and it became revenge of the clipboard carrying middle manager who liked things better when everything ran on a mainframe. They stopped all development for a year. They went crazy with forms and meetings. It was their time in the sun. Imagine 100 Miltons from office space suddenly given real authority.
    The only systems that needed some attention was the most antiquated parts of old banking: mainly cobol, the odd decrepit laptop would need a bios update. That kind of thing. The tech media gave a lot of time to doomsayers and people with something to sell (conferences and so on).
    The amount of ACTUAL WORK done to correct stuff, while important, was minimal and for every hour of work, there was 100 hours wasted.

    Y2k was real, but it also was a bandwagon. I don’t buy that a catastrophe was averted through an all-hands-on-deck effort. That sounds suspiciously like win-win for the doom mongers: See! only our hysteria saved the day. Sorry, no. At least where I was, it was 95% management froth and 5% programmers getting approval to spend time re-factoring some really old code.

  13. Y2K for the most part was in fact a giant scam brought about by the Governmental Scientific Media Complex (GSMC) and this is the same bunch of scumbags that created the global warming scare. Fear scams for profit are not new and have always been with us. As an example the phony oil shortage crisis of 1973 was reported by the media to be caused by the oil wells drying up and that there would be no more oil left in the world by 1980. The swine flue epidemic of 1976 was another scam. Let’s not forget the MIC and George W Bush and their WMD scam as a pretence to invade Iraq and the phony Gulf of Tonkin incident used by LBJ to escalate troop deployment in Vietnam to obscene levels.

    Only top-level governmental, corporation, scientific and military people are aware of the hoaxes that they create for profit. Many lower level people who work for them are unaware of the scam and believe they are working for a good cause. Lower level employees are not involved with the upper echelon think tanks and are not privy to the elaborate scams. When someone at the top becomes a whistle blower and alerts the general public about the real intent of these organizations he is immediately blackballed and his reputation is tarnished. As an example of this renowned physicist Hal Lewis resigned from the American Physical Society in disgust over the global warming scam only to find that the very people that had placed him on the pedestal of excellence were now attacking his once pristine reputation.

    Another example was Daniel Ellsberg when he released the Pentagon papers to the New York Times. The Nixon administration created a special task force of burglars known as the plumbers to raid Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to get the goods on him. Later the plumbers would be responsible for the Watergate Break-in that brought down the Nixon administration.

    Y2K was what I call a mini scam because it actually had some small truth but it was over hyped to make money and that was the scam. As for the rest of the scams there is no truth

Comments are closed.