Millennium bug

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
As the year 999 drew to a close, Christendom was gripped by fear. What if the world ended at midnight on January 31?

A thousand years later, such a notion seems laughable, until we recall two half-forgotten words: "Millennium Bug."

Remember "Y2K"? Remember "The Year 2000 Problem"? Planes would fall from the sky. The lights would go out all over Europe. There might even be nuclear war.

It was 1993 when the first warnings appeared in computer magazines, and three more years before the mass media caught on. Way back in the 1970s, it seemed, the pioneers of the information technology revolution had saved on what was then expensive computer memory by teaching machines to identify years by their last two digits only.

And now the machines were everywhere. They were running everything, from banks to defence systems, and they were fast approaching a date whose ambiguity would throw them into total confusion, namely, the year "00".

By 1997, papers were warning of millennial riots, and governments worldwide began striving for "Y2K compliance".

Sceptics argued that amending old code and replacing date-aware memory chips was hardly a major problem for the average ICT department, and certainly didn't justify an entire industry being constructed around the bug.

Consultants, claimed the sceptics, were playing on our fear of computers and big numbers and making themselves a fortune. But they protested in vain. Fuelled by descriptions of imminent apocalypse, the world may have spent as much as pound;500 billion leading up to December 31, 1999.

And when the clock struck midnight, nothing happened. By mid-January 2000, only a few minor glitches had been reported worldwide. One year later, on New Year's Day 2001, a fleet of high-speed trains in Norway refused to start. But no planes fell from the sky, and that nuclear war never seemed to materialise.

All credit, then, to the prophets of doom who made the world get its act together? Or was there never much to worry about in the first place? Two sides of a question that can never be answered. But either way, Y2K brought the last millennium to an end - not with a bang, but with a blunder.

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