For those of you who weren’t working back at the turn of the century, the millennium bug was a panic that swept though all businesses in the last few months of 1999 as we woke up to the (almost unbelievable) fact that computer companies had been making all those PCs — the desk-top computers we had invested millions of dollars in — on the apparent expectation that the world would come to an end at midnight on 31 December 1999. Dates were stored in two-digit form, on the naïve assumption that years always begin with the digits 1 and 9. Carefree individuals might say What the hey; after all there’s no likelihood of confusion for years to come. The date . . 00 would obviously mean 2000 — after all computers weren’t invented in 1900. But the trouble came with databases and such like collections of information: when you sorted by year, 2000 would appear at the top, not as it should at the bottom. Wikipedia describes the Y2K problem exhaustively. In the end IT departments all knuckled down and with scads of overtime devised various solutions which would work for the company they were employed by.
Inevitably many publishers brought out books which told you what to do to circumvent the issue, and how to cure it. I have no idea whether these did anyone any good; they certainly sold.
The whole thing was a bit of a disappointment in the Schadenfreude department. After wildly celebrating a very special New Year’s, we all came in to work and found our computers working fine. No crashing Armageddons. Rapidly of course computer manufacturers and software developers started storing year dates as four digits. Strangely enough we found it quite a burden to have to do four key-strokes for every year rather than the two we were used to. But this, like the memory of the bug itself, quickly got submerged by discussion of how we should refer to the decade, “the noughts” or whatever. Did that ever really get resolved? Maybe we have to leave these decisions to future historians, though here’s the courageous OUP blog engaging with the subject back in 2007.
(Some of us were upset to find that actually the new millennium didn’t begin for another 12 months: I guess you can’t expect to find folk wisdom around for things that happen once in a thousand years.)