Memory Lane: Remember when Y2K almost ended the world?

In the 1990s, as the world rapidly digitized, the Y2K computer problem prompted governments around the world to spend billions updating computer systems to fix what was a timing problem. Share your Year 2000 memories with Sudbury.com

We always joke that the current generation could not live without their smartphones and game consoles.

However, just 25 years ago, the whole world was faced with a completely different kind of fear: living without electricity to run the most basic necessities of life in the 20th century: lights, cookers, refrigerators and heaters. . This fear has spread to the financial sector and prevents people from accessing their money to pay for essentials such as food and medicine.

What was the cause of all this fear? A simple number name, Y2K. The advent of the new millennium.

In the early years of computing, early devices faced limited storage capacities due to the cost of each byte of data. As a result, the vast majority of these early computer programs were written with a shortened two-digit date code to express the year instead of using the full four digits.

For example, the year “1957” would be shortened to “57”, the first two digits assumed by the program being “19”. So what would happen when 1999 gave way to four completely different numbers in 2000? Would all of these systems think the year was now, in fact, 1900? This design flaw became known as the Y2K bug.

As that fateful year approached, governments around the world, business and industry leaders, and ordinary citizens worried about what was to come. Would the world descend into chaos? Fears ranged from power cuts and food shortages to the collapse of the banking system, to the most extreme belief that planes would fall from the sky, prison doors would open spontaneously and nuclear missiles would fire automatically on their targets.

In order to fight fears and win the war against the year 2000, armies of programmers have redirected all their programming efforts. They have been tasked in every sector of government across the world as well as every industry to review every computer program and manually adjust all date entries from two to four digits.

Locally, the three post-secondary institutions — Cambrian College, Collège Boréal and Laurentian University — have joined forces to tackle the Year 2000 problem by creating a “Year 2000 Readiness Project”. ‘computing of the year 2000’. The goal of the initiative was to ensure that building and facility operations, timers, lab equipment and computer systems could make the jump to the year 2000.

In November 1998, a national Angus Reid/CTV poll was conducted among 1,520 adults. Respondents were asked about their knowledge of the “year 2000 problem” and an overwhelming majority of Canadians (93%) were aware of it. However, only one in four respondents were “very familiar” with the issue and just over 50% were “somewhat” familiar with it.

When asked which sectors they were most worried about fixing, most Canadians chose “hospitals and other health care services,” followed by “banking and financial services” and “police and public safety” industries.

Here in Sudbury, a local pharmacy published a short article in the newspaper informing its customers, and citizens in general, that the health services sector was safe from the year 2000 bug. For example, they wrote at the time that the systems in place had already proven effective during the previous year’s ice storm in eastern Canada. Even so, they provided advice (just in case) which included keeping an accurate record of his medications and informing neighbors of any special medical needs. And, in a much more blunt statement aimed at survivors in the community, they reminded everyone that they only needed the amount of medication that was currently prescribed to them and that they should not ask for more for them. accumulate.

In early 2000 (yes, we survived the year 2000), CBC reported that the feds had spent about $2.5 billion on about 11,000 programmers to deal with the year 2000 bug. had even gone so far as to set up an emergency command center which operated 24 hours a day until the first days of January 2000 in case computer problems arose in closed businesses for the duration of the holidays.

Here in Sudbury, Mayor Jim Gordon was interviewed by the Sudbury Star and said he was confident the city had the year 2000 problem under control. Beginning in 1997, the Regional Municipality of Sudbury had plans in place to test each system to ensure that the Y2K bug was eradicated.

In early 1999, plans were put in place to protect Pioneer Manor’s power source by spending $335,000 on a backup power source. A failure of the area’s sewage systems was also an anticipated possibility and prompted local politicians to spend over $2 million to guard against its failure.

Even the discovery of potential Y2K issues within the Sudbury Regional Police’s communications system, though angering the chief at the time, was quickly eliminated at a cost of approximately $328,000 for taxpayers.

In the end, after nearly three years of work, at a total cost of $3.9 million, a sense of “mission accomplished” permeated Tom Davies Square and it was now a matter of waiting and seeing what which would happen on January 1st. .

The Y2K bug caused such fear in the minds of so many people that it created an entire industry for survivors (or “preppers,” as some were known). The bottled water industry was an early winner in the hoarding game, with sales rising exponentially as people hoarded supplies in hopes the entire power grid might go down. breakdown.

In an effort to streamline necessary items for survivors or (as hindsight has shown us) to more easily steal extra cash from those most obsessed with fears of total collapse, ” Year 2000 “survival kits” were offered in magazine ads and infomercials.

At home, we were not immune to the survivalist hysteria of the time. Two days before the New Year, many stores in the area were reporting strong sales on many survivalist staples: generators, lamps, heaters, food and fuel. Local newspapers even printed lists of essential items that their readers could cut out for their own preparations. These lists included the expected items such as: food, water and documents, but also items straight out of a “preparer’s manual”: propane stoves, can openers and waterproof matches.

As the new millennium approaches, books with such fantastic titles as “Year 2000: it is already too late” and “Time Bomb 2000: what the computer crisis of the year 2000 means for you!”, as well as the more benign (but no less interesting) titles, “Y2K For Women” and “The Y2K Survival Guide and Cookbook‘ sat side by side and even became bestsellers before being relegated to the dustbin of bargain books when the calendar hit January 1, 2000.

Many documentaries were produced before the year 2000 to feed some members of the public’s insatiable desire for both doomsday scenarios and survival advice. Leonard Nimoy (yes, Mr. Spock himself) hosted an instructional VHS called “Y2K Family Survival Guideto help families survive the expected “technological apocalypse.” This one hour video can even be viewed on YouTube for all your millennial nostalgia needs.

As the clocks ticked past midnight in each time zone, one after another, people around the world waited, some in fear, others in anticipation, but almost everyone was unsure. of what was about to happen.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and several of his close advisers gathered at 24 Sussex Drive in preparation for any eventuality. It was a scene that was mirrored by most governments around the world.

Ten thousand Canadian soldiers, under Operation Abacus (the name being chosen in recognition of the old arithmetic machine that everyone hoped they wouldn’t have to use after the system crashes caused by the year 2000), were on alert and ready to help respond to any emergency. However, in the absence of a clear threat, such as a flood or a snowstorm, and the possibility that the computer systems used by the Canadian Armed Forces would also be affected, soldiers had to be ready to react to anything.

In the end, Sudbury welcomed the year 2000 like all other communities around the world, saying goodbye to 1999 with hope for the new millennium. All fireworks and no “fire and brimstone”. Life went on as normally as the fearmongers and year 2000 survivalists turned out to be wrong.

After more than two decades, how did you feel before the year 2000? Have you been caught up in Y2K fever or Y2K scare? Or maybe you or someone you know was one of many people involved in fixing the problem.

Share your memories of the year 2000 with Memory Lane writer Jason Marcon by emailing him at [email protected] or emailing the editor at [email protected] We will share your memories in Part 2 on November 25.

Jason Marcon is a Greater Sudbury writer and history buff. He leads the Coniston Historical Group and the Sudbury Then and Now Facebook Page. Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.

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