History is rife with predictions about the end of the world. In modern times, however, few have been taken as seriously as the Y2K fiasco. As the 1990s drew to a close, technology experts and doomsayers expressed varying levels of concern about computers getting confused by the year 2000. Two digits were used to denote the year, which meant some software might interpret “00” as 1900. Would that glitch cause civilization’s collapse?
Thankfully, it turned out to be not such a big deal: Tech experts made the necessary updates and world’s end was postponed. But that didn’t stop a number of experts (both accredited and not) from making some dire predictions about what was about to happen on New Year’s Day 2000.
Many Y2K fears revolved around the collapse of banking institutions and a resulting loss of access to monetary resources. But for the truly paranoid, it was the idea of prisons experiencing hiccups that kept them up at night. According to a 1998 WIRED article, the thinking was that because prison doors are often electronically monitored and operated, any computer dysfunction could conceivably cause them to remain open, thereby letting violent offenders loose on the population.
“You couldn’t build a modern prison today without computers … it makes them very vulnerable [to Y2K],” information technology manager Dr. Michael Harden told the outlet in 1998. “The more modern the prison, the more likely it is to be reliant on computer chips or computer systems for control of all their security functions.”
One even more bizarre theory: That normal citizens cut off from basic resources as well as the electric grid might actually lay siege to the nearest prison to take advantage of their food and amenities.
Naturally, none of this transpired. As a precaution, state prison systems like the one in Colorado obtained back-up generators and invited staffers to celebrate with non-alcoholic beverages in case they were needed.
A personal computer registering the year 2000 as the year 1900 might cause games to crash or programs to sputter. But in a worst case scenario, a computer getting confused with passengers 30,000 feet in the air seemed catastrophic. Even a fleeting glitch in air traffic control operations or cockpits could spell disaster. People wondered whether planes would crash as a result of the turnover to the new millennium.
So did airlines: American Airlines vice president of information technology Scott Nathan told press that “I don’t believe everything will work perfectly” and that he was unsure whether the computer problem would be “a nuisance or something more serious.” Airbus, meanwhile, flew a test flight in early 1999 where pilots set the clocks ahead to see what might happen. (Since you’ve never heard of the “Airbus Y2K disaster,” the answer was, thankfully, nothing.)
The issue with planes was of sufficient importance that then-president Bill Clinton’s Y2K “czar,” John Koskinen, made a point to board a plane headed for New York City that would have him in the air when the clock struck midnight. The idea was to reassure an anxious public that everything was fine, and sure enough, Koskinen made a safe landing.
Imagine: It’s January 1, 2000 and your toaster has caught fire because—well, because of Y2K. You try to put it out and burn yourself in the process. Then your house catches fire. You call 911. You get a busy signal.
Incapacitated emergency lines were one scenario floated by experts, as 911 call centers run on computer switchboards. Digital databases also bring up information about the caller, which is then forwarded to personal radios of emergency responders. Even one interruption along the chain could delay or prevent urgent intervention.
All of it seemed like a recipe for disaster, as per a Bell Atlantic spokesperson who spoke to the FCC about possible Y2K problems in November 1998. Local governments were urged to address any problems with systems, while radio hardware companies like Ericsson were forced to provide reassurance their equipment would still work.
Still, by August 1999, only an estimated 37 percent of 911 call centers were Y2K-compliant, as reported by the President’s Council on the Year 2000 Conversion. Some smaller municipalities urged residents to call fire departments or police directly.
While it’s possible there were isolated issues, by December virtually all call centers proclaimed they were Y2K-ready. Any issues on New Year’s, public safety officials said, would likely be the result of too many people test-dialing 911 to make sure the system was working.
One of the biggest fears surrounding Y2K was a collapse of infrastructure: utilities, stores, and ATMs might go offline, making transactions difficult. Y2K futurist Gary North recommended people stockpile toilet paper—not only in case of personal need, but on the chance they could use it as a barter item. No reports of any toilet paper-related transactions occurred.
Before smartphones were commonplace, consumers used GPS devices in cars, boats, and in portable form to navigate. The U.S. Department of the Interior warned that GPS satellites might malfunction, rendering the receivers useless—and campers lost in the woods.
“If you’re out on the desert and you’re not paying too much attention to nautical navigation, there could be a problem,” Interior Department spokesperson Steve King told The Deseret News. “If we lose just one person it’s one person too many.”
The agency urged people to check with their device’s manufacturer to make sure it was Y2K ready.
One place Y2K-phobes didn’t want to be on New Year’s Eve: in an elevator. Across New York City, several building managers ceased elevator operations out of concern that blackouts might prompt them to stop working. Residential buildings stopped the elevators at roughly 11:50 p.m. and held them, open, on the ground floors for about 30 minutes.
Like a scene out of The Day After (or Threads, for British viewers), some Y2K forecasters worried that computer problems might influence nuclear defense systems, leading to the accidental launch of weapons and mutually assured destruction. Thankfully, this was taken extremely seriously by nuclear superpowers the U.S. and Russia, who agreed to set up a joint effort to quell any nuclear misunderstandings.
“We are less than optimistic that Russian early warning systems will function [properly],” Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said in a House subcommittee hearing in 1999. “It is possible that Russian computer screens could go blank.”
It wasn’t quite what you’d like to hear from a reputable source. But thanks to DoD efforts, there was little opportunity for things to go haywire … mostly: There was a reported but unspecified glitch at a nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, then the nation’s main uranium storage site.