Over the holidays as friends and family were sitting around chatting, my wife told the story of how our son, Joe, gave us a Y2K scare. On December 31, 1999 as we were counting down the last 10 seconds of the year, our lights went out just as we said zero.

Joe had sneaked downstairs and shut off the breaker at the perfect moment, giving us a fright.

“What’s Y2K?” a 20-something friend asked.

My wife and I looked at each other, deciding which of us would try to explain. I took a stab at it.

“Y2K stands for Year Two Thousand. In the 1980s and 90s, computers didn’t have a lot of storage space, so programmers found ways to shorten their code. One way was to use just the last two digits for years. For example, in a program’s code, 08/15/1989 would be written as 08/15/89.

“In the late 1990s, people realized that at the end of 1999, programs in everything from power plants to airplanes would tick over to the new year, except the new year would be 00. No one was sure how computers would react to this. Would they consider this an invalid entry? Would programs everywhere crash? And along with them power plants, airplanes, banks, and society itself?”

I went on to describe the atmosphere of doom that gripped the world. Governments and corporations shoveled billions of dollars into massive reprogramming efforts and changes in hardware, but many feared it was too little too late.

People prepared the best they could by topping off the car’s gas tank, stocking up on canned goods, filling the bathtub with water, and so on.

On the night of December 31, the world was holding its breath.

The date clicked over from 1999 to 2000 and the world didn’t end. However, not everything went smoothly. Some computers listed the new year as 1900 instead of 2000, which made people and events seem a lot older than they were.

In some police stations, juvenile offenders were listed as being in their 80s.

One man racked up $91,250 in late fees for a video rental. The computer thought he’d had the movie for 100 years.

Our nation’s timekeeper, The U.S. Naval Observatory, was embarrassed when their website said the date was January 1, 19100. The glitch was fixed in less than an hour.

U.S. spy satellites transmitted unreadable data for three days. A patch in the computer code that fixed the Y2K issue had messed up the data transmission software.

Alarms in several nuclear power plants went off, but were quickly silenced. As far as I know, no plant employees suffered heart attacks when the alarms sounded.

My young friend was amazed, having no idea about this giant scare, which had taken place just a couple of years before she was born.

That’s okay. She’ll get to enjoy the 2038 scare, when all 32-bit computer systems are expected to crash because of a similar bug in programming. It’s being referred to as Y2038. I’m sure you’ll hear more about it.


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