At 15 minutes to midnight on Jan. 18, 1985, Spencer Bolles submitted a post to an online bulletin board system from his computer at Reed College in Oregon. “I have a friend that raised an interesting question that I immediately tried to prove wrong,” he wrote. “He is a programmer and has this notion that when we reach the year 2000, computers will not accept the new date. Will the computers assume that it is 1900, or will it even cause a problem?”
Because of storage limitations in the early days of computers, it became common for programmers to use a two-digit format to correspond with the last two digits of each designated year. Since 99 was the highest value in this format, the fear became exactly what Bolles’ friend had in mind: When the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1999, computers and software would start to assume that instead of the next millenium, the current year would be 1900.
During the 1990s, the theory would be tested. The latter half of the decade saw companies scrambling to upgrade or debug the entirety of their information systems. Fear began to mount with the idea that infrastructure could fail and defense systems would freeze, or even be put into red alert. People started to associate Y2K with the apocalypse — not the religious rapture that seems to come around every couple of years, but the first technological, man-made, apocalypse. Yet, humankind survived without defaulting into the agrarian, even sometimes savage, society talking heads would’ve had you believe, all due to the efforts of the real heroes: the programmers who worked their asses off to make sure all systems were go.
This was Boston’s Y2K experience.
On June 23, 1996, The Boston Globe published an article by David L Chandler entitled “Century mark is system downer.” This would be the first mention in the paper about the problem to be covered extensively over the next few years by writers such as Ross Kerber and Kevin Cullen. “Charles Saffron of Beth Israel Hospital said that units of blood stored in blood banks have a tightly regulated shelf life,” Chandler wrote, giving a local example of the bug’s potential impact. “If computer systems aren’t adjusted, in the year 2000 they might calculate that all stored blood units are safe, because all have expiration dates later than 1900 — the date many computers will assume to be the present.” Like many companies that would report to the Globe in the coming years, Beth Israel was “making the necessary changes.”
The growing footprint of the tech sector in late-’90s Boston led David Bushnell to write in November of ‘97 that “The NorthWest area is a hotbed of activity on the Y2K problem because of the number of high-tech firms, from Lexington-based Raytheon Co., the state’s largest private employer, to Diamond Antenna & Microwave Corp. of Lowell, which has just 20 employees.”
By then just the cost alone, which was estimated to be “from $40 billion to $600 billion” according to Bushnell’s article, was enough to have a huge impact on businesses. Americans started to worry about the necessities: utilities, medication, and bank accounts. A couple months later, Globe reporter Fred Kaplan would inform readers of the latest threat: nuclear war.
In “Military on Year 2000 alert” published on June 21, 1998, Kaplan wrote that “The Defense Department has about 25,000 computer systems — 2,803 of them classified as “mission-critical systems,” meaning that, without them, the military could no longer carry out a major mission.” He also interviewed Robert Martin, “a top computer specialist” who noted that the systems included nuclear missiles, radars, and communications networks. Planning and implementing solutions for the bug were already in play at this point. In fact, that month, the Defense Department begun to coordinate fixes on their systems.
Kaplan’s article ended with a quote by Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre telling the Senate Armed Services Committee “This is going to have implications in the world . . . that we can’t even comprehend.”
So yes, people were legitimately worried. In the next year-and-a-half, anxiety and fear of human error became common on news networks, and in turn, the American people. The Y2K Bug was blown out of proportion and marketed across the world.
Here is a video of a television program called ‘How to Prepare your Family for Y2K.” It includes multiple authors and “experts” who do nothing to help calm fears. “Will you be sorry you didn’t act in time?” asks the narrator.
In a Daily Show episode from Nov. 17, 1999, “Senior End-Of-The-World Analyst” Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart prepare audiences for Y2K: The Movie, when “NBC realized New Years Eve wasn’t in a sweeps month, and decided to move the destruction of civilization up to this Sunday night,” according to Colbert. The voice-over in the movie trailer shown asks “What if they were right?”
A trailer for another Y2K flick features Malcolm Mcdowell talking about “a silo triggered by the first minute of the New Year.” The plot for this one follows a group of military officers as they have 32 hours to stop a missile from destroying Moscow.
On a much more local level, a team of filmmakers from Emerson College won Best Student Narrative at the Boston Underground Film Festival with a short commentary on the hysteria. “Y2K” features shots of Downtown Crossing barren; stores locked up and shelters full. The short features a young man who will do anything to survive.
Back to Reality
Anne E Kornblut wrote in her March 3, 1999 Globe article, “Senate Y2K watchers sound muted alarm,” that “The dire acronym for ‘the end of the world as we know it,’ which predicts what will occur at the stroke of midnight, Jan. 1, 2000, is in vogue on Web sites. Yesterday it made its way at last into the Senate, as lawmakers met in a closed session to discuss the potential Year 2000 crisis.“ She quoted John Kerry, then “the ranking Democrat on the Small Business Committee” who gave warning that businesses that weren’t prepared may, in his words, “wind up losing money and being hurt,” adding that, “in this country, I think the effects [of Y2K] will be negligible. I think there are much greater dangers abroad.”
Ross Kerber would begin to update readers of progress in the business world. From “Racing the clock” in the Jan. 31, 1999 issue: “A Globe survey of large institutions around New England suggests many have made progress tackling the problem. AT&T Corp. says it already has prepared systems considered “mission-critical” — meaning those needed to keep its main product, long-distance service, available after the date change. Gillette Co. says it has finished 90 percent of its basic work.” This article would also mention Val Asbedian, the Commonwealth’s point person for Y2K, and later the state’s first Chief Information Officer.
A feature on Asbedian was published on June 20, 1999. Written by Ross Kerber, the piece introduced readers to the man responsible for getting Massachusetts ready for the rollover. Asbedian, “a 60-year-old former rocket scientist who joined the state government two years ago,” as Kerber describes him, is “largely anonymous.” The piece quotes him as saying “I’m just doing a job.” However, his job took him across the state, speaking with local business owners and communities about how they can prepare, while also managing the state’s planning and implementation. Kerber writes, “He says he is confident there will not be significant disruptions next New Year’s Day, which falls on a Saturday. As for keeping a lot of cash on hand, he said, ‘If there is a big problem, where are you going be able to spend the money?’”
Asbedian watched every agency closely, grading them by how far along they will be at deadlines set by then Governor Cellucci.
While Asbedian had given the MBTA a red mark, meaning it had not met Cellucci’s deadline, it was ready to go by the end of December. Globe Reporter Thomas C. Palmer Jr. wrote on Dec. 22 that that MBTA expected 2 million riders, and would have 200 extra busses and “about three-quarters of the T’s 6,500 employees,” working that night. Palmer Jr. also wrote that “Passengers will not be required to exit the trains and stations at midnight Dec. 31, [General Manager Robert H.] Prince said, though he questioned whether anyone would want to celebrate the millennium on an MBTA car.”
Checklists and Implementation
Major institutions such as BU were on track. Earlier in the year, then-President Jon Westling sent a letter to faculty and staff asking them to check their individual workstations and work with a compliance program. In fact, because Y2K is such a recent event, the BU Year 2000 Resource Center website is still online.
A parody memo from Information Security at MIT made the rounds a few days before New Years Eve. This too, is still online, and helps inform readers what to do in case there are “Rivers and Seas Boiling” or “Dead Rising From the Grave.”
Ross Kerber’s “Best Laid Schemes Face a Final Test” was the last article of the millenium the Globe published about Y2K. Kerber wrote about state and city workers who would be on duty during the rollover. He quotes Gary Beach, publisher of Boston-based CIO magazine, who said “The bottom-line outlook is that there are going to be Y2K problems, and maybe 85 percent of them are going to be annoyances that are fixable in a day. The probability of having a catastrophic event happen near you is very low.”
The next day, the Globe read “Around World, Few Incidents are Reported.” In this article, Kevin Cullen wrote, “Fears about the computer malfunction known as the Millennium Bug, not to mention terrorist attacks, turned out to be largely exaggerated. While not glitch-free, the new year, new century, and new millennium began with far less chaos across the globe than had been expected. “
A few days later, Kerber would write about the few problems reported by small companies. “At South End Video,” he writes, “a database struck by the Y2K bug incorrectly determined 400 customers didn’t meet age restrictions for PG-13 movies like ‘The Waterboy.’”
But a video store computer system malfunctioning is nowhere close to the devastation predicted by some.
On Jan. 2, 2000, Peter J Howe wrote in “Specialists Say Preparation Killed Potential Y2K Bug” that “With the once-dreaded year 2000 having arrived in time zone after time zone with virtually no millennium-bug chaos, it seems that the many predictions of computer meltdowns, driven by the shift to the date 01-01-00, could now be widely disparaged as Chicken Little nonsense. They may even be seen as a conspiracy perpetrated by self- interested vendors of technology.”
The article goes on to quote many IT workers and researchers who either write-off Y2K as hype, or credit the years of planning and implementation for the smooth rollover.
With each countdown, little-to-no major problems were reported that were caused by the bug. The streets weren’t filled with dead cars and rabid dogs. Business resumed and everyone went about their day. The year 2000 had arrived with much reason to celebrate. The first babies born were showcased around the world, entering into the Information Age right after its first major showdown.