January 1st 2000 would remind you of the old Ernie and Bert gag.
Bert: Why have you got a banana in your ear?
Ernie: To keep away the alligators.
Bert: There aren’t any any alligators on Sesame Street Ernie.
Ernie: Right, it’s doing a good job, isn’t it Bert?
That was the thing about the Millennium or Y2K Bug — the precautions did a good job.
The bug arose because expensive memory was a precious commodity in early computers — so when engineers started writing software in the 1960s, they only allocated enough space for the last two digits of the year. As a result 68 would always be 1968. And when the the clock ticked past midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999, the date would go back to January 1st 1900.
This was bound to cause problems in a world that was increasingly run on computers. You’d be hard pushed to find a report about it from the late 1990s that didn’t include the word ‘meltdown’.
The single greatest fear was that VCRs would stop recording our favourite TV shows. This might seem daft now in the streaming age, but back then you had one shot at capturing an episode of Friends, or else your life was effectively over. The second greatest fear was that ATM’s would stop working and we couldn’t buy drink on our New Year’s Eve night out.
Out on the dafter end of the scales, people were predicting financial meltdown, planes falling out of the sky and accidental nuclear missile launch meltdowns. In January 199, Time splashed ‘The End of the World’ across its cover and even reported that people in rural Montana were looking forward to it.
More fuel was added by evangelicals in the US who felt a computer bug could be the catalyst for the end-of-days apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Rev Jerry Falwell made a video called A Christian’s Guide to the Millennium Bug, which advised people to stock up on gardening utensils, Q-tips, along with peanut butter and jelly. The video retailed at $28, a small price to pay under the circumstances.
We were a bit more low-key in Ireland. A 1997 news report by Tony Connelly started with the R.E.M. song, It’s the End of the World as We Know it, but calmed down a bit after that. It turns out the scariest things in Tony’s report were the multi-coloured ties on the consultants he interviewed. (The late 90s were a bleak time for men’s fashion, we were still waiting for Mad Men to come along and save us from double-breasted suits.)
The main focus of the report was on the cost to Irish business — we learned that Bank of Ireland planned to spend 30 million Irish pounds and 500 man-years to rectify the issue. (It was 1999 so they still called it man-years. It was also before 2008, so we still trusted banks to do the right thing for the country.) It was the IT crowd that took a lot of the flak for the millennium bug.
First of all the geeks failed to spot their code would be dodgy after 1999; then they charged people a fortune to fix it. When planes failed to fall out of the sky on New Year’s Day 2000, a lot of people cried fix.
And in fairness, some people made a killing. The amount of money spent rectifying the problem ranges from 150 to 500 billion pounds sterling, depending on who you believe.
The Guardian visited a company called Greenwich Mean Time in Hampshire in 2000 and found a car park full of sports cars.
The firm had sold 4 million copies of their Check 2000 software worldwide, at £20 a pop.
But the fact is that something had to be done. In 1997, I was working as a software engineer at the meteorological arm of the European Space Agency, just south of Frankfurt. We spent a whole year applying and testing software patches to rectify Year 2K issues.
It didn’t really matter in my corner of the organisation, but others were tasked with making sure that satellites didn’t fall out of the sky. Just because they didn’t doesn’t mean it was all a sham.
And there was no shortage of blips in early 2000, caused by systems that weren’t updated. The official time keeper in the US, the Naval Observatory, reported the date as 19100 on its website. Slot machines failed in Delaware, as did bus ticket validation machines in Australia, and Telecom Italia sent out bills for the first two months of 1900.
More worryingly, it is thought that 150 pregnant women in England were given the incorrect results from a test for Down’s Syndrome, because the faulty software calculated their age incorrectly. When the problem was discovered, a further test had to be run later in the pregnancy, putting mother and baby at greater risk.
The world didn’t end on New Year’s Day 2000, but its legacy lives on. It feels like it undermined the authority of anyone who tries to warn about impending environmental catastrophe for the planet.
In politics, Brexit campaigners argue that their opponents are like the doom-merchants in the late 1990s, over-egging the negatives of Brexit to force people to act against it. We don’t know how that is going to pan out. But it’s fairly clear that the Y2k Bug could have led to disaster if people didn’t prepare for it well in advance. So might be a good time for people in the UK to stock up on Q tips and peanut butter.