“The Millennium Bug” or “Y2K Bug” seems like ancient history now but in 1998 and 1999 it was very big and somewhat scary news. In the end the passing of the world’s clocks from the year 1999 to 2000 caused few serious problems leading some to regard the whole thing as a hoax … But is that just because the problem was dealt with effectively?

The Y2K bug was a computer systems flaw that was believed to have the potential to cause havoc among the world’s IT networks with very serious wider ramifications. The problem arose in computer systems developed prior to the 1990s when even large servers had a fraction of the memory found on desktops today. The “bug” was created by programmers who shortened years on systems, so 1985, for example, was programmed as “85”. It seems like a small thing but any method to make computer memory go further was enlisted.

Computer scientist Nir Oren wrote the following about Y2K just two years ago in The Conversation:

It looked likely that financial transactions such as accrued interest would be calculated incorrectly. Monitoring software would suddenly believe it had expired and ceased to work, while navigation software would not be able to compute positions correctly. Still more alarming, failures in individual mission-critical systems might cascade. This could cause power grids, telecoms networks and financial systems to fail; oil rigs to stop pumping oil; hospital patient record systems to start prescribing the wrong drugs.

The computer industry’s response involved a massive software rewrite, with official “Y2K ready” certification issued after extensive testing. Different solutions were implemented for different systems, depending on their memory capacity. The best option was to store years as four digits. Where that was not possible, programmers might instruct a system to treat, say, dates between “00” and “50” as being in the 2000s, and years between “51” and “99” as being in the 1900s. This at least allowed systems to keep functioning.

As noted by Oren, Y2K was a big worry for the finance industry. Cuscal’s Directions magazine featured a number of articles in 1999 on being “Y2K Ready”. However, it must be said that while the problem was discussed earnestly, it was discussed calmly.

For example, here is Cuscal’s Y2K Project Manager, Chass Campbell, in the October 1999 edition of Directions, “With so much hype about Y2K, it is only natural for people to be uncertain about the arrival of the new millennium”.

As stated at the beginning there were very few serious problems. National Geographic reported that:

A nuclear energy facility in Ishikawa, Japan, had some of its radiation equipment fail, but backup facilities ensured there was no threat to the public. The U.S. detected missile launches in Russia and attributed that to the Y2K bug. But the missile launches were planned ahead of time as part of Russia’s conflict in its republic of Chechnya. There was no computer malfunction.

They also reported that countries such as Russia, South Korea and Italy did very little to address Y2K and came through pretty much unscathed which led some to wonder if the whole thing was much ado about nothing. Oren in The Conversation says this view:

Ignores the fact that software patches for the bug were rolled out worldwide. Those who didn’t prepare were protected thanks to the efforts of those who did. There is ample evidence, thanks to preparedness exercises, code reviews and the like, that if not addressed, the impact of Y2K would have been much more significant.


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