The Y2K problem

Was it the Project Fear of its day?

As the millennium approached its end, the public were not only agog with the excitement of the River of Fire along the Thames, the anticipation of the first all-evens date in a thousand years, and the limitations of the clocks inside their computers.

Since the 1960s, the code in computers denoted years such as 1998 as 98. Memory and disk space were astronomically expensive. Why use double the number of digits that you needed? I mean, it wasn’t like this software would still be in use 40-years later…

Turns out, a surprising amount was.

As a result, when the new millennium arrived, and the date ticked over to 01/01/2000, the computer clocks would see 00 and understand that to mean 1900. This would cause chaos in systems which used a lot of date processing.

The prophets of doom had a field day.

Baffled by the sudden time travel, planes would fall out of the sky. Power stations would melt down. Nuclear weapons would accidentally fire themselves. The horsemen of the apocalypse would surely follow.

In the popular memory, the millennium bug was something that failed to come to pass. The planes stayed firmly in the sky.

There were victims. A PC in a weather centre in Aberdeen froze, a tide gauge in Portsmouth failed, and there were glitches in the payroll of the German Opera in Berlin.

Unfortunate, yes, but not on the same scale as accidental nuclear war.

So was all that fixing of the “millennium bug” a job-creation scheme for computer consultants? No doubt some made money fixing stuff that wasn’t broken. Yet many more trawled through thousands of lines of code looking for date variables and fixing them.

It was only thanks to huge amounts of effort and years of planning that the real threat from the bug was averted.

Computer threats are real. In 2016, the NHS and other organisations that were using antediluvian Windows systems crashed to the ground with WannaCry. In 2018, TSB discovered that even planned computer switchovers can cause financial mayhem.

The millennium was a real problem. It needed fixing. It got fixed.

That’s what happened. But that headline will never sell as many newspapers as the one with the planes falling out of the sky.

Happy new year. In it, let’s see what happens to Project Fear.


Planes stayed in the sky


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