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Y2K: What Really Happened?

On New Year’s Eve 1998, partygoers were anticipating the new year, eager to hear Prince’s “1999” at the stroke of midnight. Fast forward one year, many of those same people were dreading the ball drop, afraid of what “Y2K” would bring.

“Y2K,” a familiar phrase to all who lived through the turn of the century, does not simply stand for “year 2000.” It refers to the computer flaw that was predicted to strike at midnight on January 1, 2000. Up to the 1990s, computers were programmed to abbreviate years into 2 digits to save data storage. They would take only the last two digits (e.g., “1999” would be abbreviated to “99”). It was realized at the end on the 1900s that such computers wouldn’t be able to recognize “00” as “2000,” possibly interpreting the new year as 1900 instead. Therefore, people were afraid that at midnight, computers would fail unless fixed beforehand. The article Y2K Bug says, “it was feared that such a misreading would lead to software and hardware failures in computers used in such important areas as banking, utilities systems, government records, and so on, with the potential for widespread chaos on and following January 1, 2000.” This led many to believe that they were soon to be part of an apocalyptic crisis!

As the threat of the Y2K bug wreaked havoc across the world, programmers, governments, and software and hardware companies hurried to fix the issue, mainly by trying to expand the dates to four digits. Y2K Bug says, “an estimated $300 billion was spent (almost half in the United States) to upgrade computers and application programs to be Y2K-compliant.” Interestingly, Russia spent practically no money on preparation. They must have been psyched with the outcome…

At the turn of the century, people all over the world held their breath. The results were both relieving and slightly embarrassing. Nothing major happened. Nothing significant exploded, shut down, or failed to work. People accused one another of great exaggeration. Even now, people look back at the Y2K crisis as one big overreaction. Although there was no apocalypse, a few funny mixups did occur due to the bug. The article 7 Problems Y2K Actually Caused says, “In Denmark, the country’s first “millennium baby” got an auspicious start to life when the hospital’s computers originally registered it as 100 years old.” What an odd glitch! The article goes on to discuss other Y2K impacts such as a German man’s bank account randomly being credited 6 million dollars. Some others were not as fortunate, such as a New Yorker who was charged about 91,000 dollars for renting The General’s Daughter. His copy of the tape was marked as 100 years overdue, giving him a $91,250.00  bill. Luckily, the company gave him a refund (and an apology), along with a free video rental! These humorous Y2K impacts are priceless, but a more widespread issue was the amount of Y2K survival kits that people were stuck with. A company called Preparedness Resources made $16 million off of their “no return” survival kits. 

In the end, though Y2K may seem like an overreaction to an insignificant issue, it was a colossal threat at the time, and one that won’t likely be forgotten by those who lived through it.