The panic of New Year's Eve 1999

December 31, 2012

Remember December 31, 1999?

Okay, I hear you. And I'm with you--sometimes I have trouble remembering thirteen days ago, let alone thirteen years ago.

But thirteen years ago today, Chicago and the rest of the world were preparing for the Turn of the Millennium. We were also preparing for a possible catastrophe called Y2K.

“Y2K” was short for Year 2000, and the problem was with computers. Computer programmers had long been rendering years with the last two digits only. For example, “63″ was used in place of 1963. It was a way of saving bits on the computer. 

So what would happen when 1999 clicked over into 2000? Would computers think we were moving back in time to 1900? Then anything electronic might go crazy! 

Massive power failures! Financial records gone! Elevators crashing! Planes falling from the sky! Missiles being launched by mistake! During the late 1990s, a whole industry of Y2K-fixers sprang up. And of course, there was the usual Presidential Commission to study the matter.

As doomsday approached, Chicago got ready for the worst. Local businesses coughed up over $2 billion to upgrade their computers. Motorola was the biggest spender at $230 million, followed by Abbott Labs at $100 million. 
 
Government agencies were also running up large tabs. A Tollway official calculated they’d have to collect tolls from 36 million vehicles just to pay for their Y2K costs. The city’s Department of Children and Family Services said their agency could have used the money they’d spent to hire 186 more caseworkers. 
 
One Oakbrook firm was trying to look on the bright side–they’d hesitated about modernizing their computer system, but now Y2K was making them do it. Other businesses planned on moving more heavily into e-commerce. A Ford dealer was thinking about selling used cars over the internet. 
 
December 31st arrived. The weather was unseasonably warm in Chicago that evening, but many people refused to venture far from their homes. If Y2K did cause chaos, they were playing it safe. 
 
So we counted down. Five . . . Four . . . Three . . . Two . . . One . . . 
 
Happy New Year! Happy New Century! Happy New Millennium! 
 
And nothing happened. Any Y2K problems that did turn up were minor. 
 
Cynics claimed the Y2K dangers had been greatly exaggerated, that the thing was a plot by computer geeks to make money for needless work. The computer geeks gave their response–the dangers had been real, but because of all the precautions that had been taken, our civilization escaped disaster. No one really knows how much of either view is correct. 
 
But we had survived Y2K. Just like we survived the Mayan Apocalypse.
 
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