Tech Time Warp: Ringing in the new year and waiting for Y2K chaos
Do you remember holding your breath on New Year’s Eve 1999, wondering if technological balls would start to drop after the ball dropped in Times Square? After governments and corporations spent an estimated $300 billion to $600 billion worldwide to reprogram their systems, hopes were high that everything would turn out OK—though few of us were as confident as President Bill Clinton’s Y2K czar, John Koskinen, who demonstrated his faith in the country’s preparations by placing himself on an airplane the night of Dec. 31, 1999.
For those who’ve forgotten or are too young to remember, the potential for Y2K issues stemmed from the fact that most programming had relied on two-date categorization of dates to reduce needed memory space (e.g., “99” instead of “1999”). No one was quite sure whether computers would read “00” as “2000” or “1900.”
For the most part, Y2K quickly became a joke because of the extensive preparations that had taken place. It wasn’t a disaster because billions of dollars and thousands of hours were spent preventing disaster. Still, a few curious things did happen:
- A video rental store system (remember those?) in upstate New York showed that a customer owed $91,250 in late fees for his rental of “The General’s Daughter,” a 1999 military thriller starring John Travolta. The mistake was quickly rectified, however, and the customer received a coupon for a free rental.
- Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign website showed the year as “19100,” as did the U.S. Naval Observatory website. (This was not the weirdest thing to happen to the Gore presidential campaign in the year 2000.)
- In Denmark, the first baby of the new millennium was registered as 100 years old.
A few additional Y2K-related glitches didn’t make themselves known until 2020. Some programmers preparing for Y2K had opted for the easier fix of “windowing,” only fixing the years 2000 to 2020 in code. The gamble was that the code would no longer be in use by 2020. Of course, legacy code has a way of sticking around, so the gamble didn’t always pay off, at least when it came to some utility bills dated “1920” and New York City parking meters that rejected credit card transactions.
Of course, this was not the weirdest thing to happen in the year 2020, either.
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