How A Computer Bug Dubbed ‘Y2K’ Was Feared to Bring About the End of the World

As the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, the world braced for total computer failure.

The fallout shelter was ready. The batteries were in place, candles were prepped, food was stocked and the sauced had been jarred — as my grandma prepped for impending doom. 

Fear gripped my then-66-year-old grandmother as she tuned into the news and saw what could bring catastrophe to civilization. She urged her children and grandchildren to shelter in place with her as the minutes to midnight rapidly approached. 

"I am-a gonna be ready for the 2-2-K!"

In her Italian-accented English, that was the mantra of my Sicilian grandma in the months, weeks, days and hours leading up to the turn of the 21st century. Though our family got a good laugh out of her mispronunciation of the Y2K moniker, short for Year 2000, the panic for her and so many people around the globe about what could happen when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, was no laughing matter.

In 1999, Y2K was shorthand for a computer bug that many believed would break the world's electronic systems. They were convinced the bug would prevent online clocks from turning forward to 2000, instead turning them back to 1900 — and cause banks, electrical grids, nuclear power stations and anything driven by a computer to fail. 

As the 1990s came to a close and the world prepared to usher in the new millennium, the anticipation of cataclysmic disaster grew to a frenzy.

While everyone's clocks — including my grandma's — obviously continued on without so much as a glitch, it's clear how a completely false but very real sense of impending demise affected the years the 20 years that followed, defined by a culture of outrage and mass hysteria on social media.

It Was the End of the World...

Y2K was introduced into the mainstream lexicon in the late 1990s, as experts weighed in on the potential likelihood of a digital pandemic. The bigger picture was clear, but the details weren't as easy to grasp. 

“There wasn't a very clear explanation of what might actually happen," Alexander George, editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics, told "[It] stemmed from this basic idea that if the date information is incorrect, that's going to have lots of unintended consequences." 

The fears evoked by Y2K issue took root in the 1960s, when computing was first introduced to the business and government sectors. 

“That [issue] originated in early computing where all [digital] storage was extremely expensive," George explained.

For instance, writing out a numeric calendar date using a two-digit year, like '99,' rather than a four-digit year, such as '1999,' was far cheaper, he said. "You would actually save a meaningful amount of space," and therefore money, he said.

And so many feared that when it came time for the year to change from 1999, or 99, to 2000, or 00, all hell would break loose. 

"That is what originated this kind of fear that, ‘Okay, well, what is the computer going to think when it goes to '00? Is it going to think it's 1900? And what is that going to mean for everything?'” George added. 

As the calendar inched closer to 2000, the term "Y2K" was batted around with increasing frequency as the world braced for full-on computer failure. President Bill Clinton held press briefings about it, and business leaders from Intel to Deutsche Bank stepped forward to explain how they planned to address the potential issue. 

“It made it feel like something that we all have really had to pay attention to," George said. 

The United States crafted a specific council to combat the computer bug and spent about $100 billion to prevent the devastation experts believed was coming. 

"Other countries that had very little spending were not as reliant on computer infrastructure as we were in the United States," George said. “It was uniquely American for that reason. But it was a concern around the world. And there were conversations between countries to share information that would be able to benefit everybody and make sure that they all had their updates.”

...As We Knew It...

My grandparents, Carl and Cecelia, survived World War II in Sicily and saw all hell break out years before they immigrated to New York. For grandpa, a computer bug was not going to be the end of the world. But my grandma, whose childhood story I chronicled on, bought into the panic both literally and figuratively. She wasn't alone. 

“You had friends who were building safe spaces for nuclear fallout in their backyards. They were stockpiling rations, they were stockpiling water,” George explained. “You heard about grocery stores ... running out. I never went through that. But you knew other families that did it.

“Building up to it, you heard stories about runs on ATMs,” George continued. “But in general what you saw, it was preparation for this thing you see in the movies, where money doesn't matter anymore, it's all your survival.”

My grandma began buying cases of canned tomatoes to make sauce to store in Mason jars long before they became a hip thing to drink out of. She also stocked up on canned goods, bottled water, batteries, candles, flashlights, first aid kits and blankets. But where would she store all of these items?

Much to his ire, my grandma began converting my grandpa’s garage into a makeshift fallout shelter for the family, installing shelving units to store everything.

By the time New Year’s Eve approached, grandma Cecelia would not allow her family to go anywhere to celebrate the start of a new millennium. All four of her adult children, along with their spouses and her eight grandkids, had to ring in the New Year at her home, just in case. 

My father and my three uncles bought champagne, but they were too afraid to keep it in the house in case something did go awry and there was no cause for celebration, proving their mother-in-law right. So the bottles were left outside in the cold as we gathered around the television to watch Dick Clark count down the New Year. Then, as the ball dropped in Times Square, the unthinkable occurred – nothing. 

In came the champagne. My grandpa laughed his head off at the whole situation, my family celebrated and my cousins and I danced to No Doubt's cover of R.E.M.’s apocalyptic classic "It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" on MTV.

All the while, grandma Cecelia sulked in the corner, repeating, “I just don’t understand.” 

But then, in typical Italian grandma fashion, she bounced back and asked: “Now, what am I gonna do with all of this food?” 

And We Were Fine

As cities around the world rang in the New Year, it became evident that all of Earth's computers seemed to be safe. 

“You started to see New Zealand and Tokyo all have their celebrations on TV, and then we eventually saw Times Square," George recalled. “The ball dropped, the blackout that we all thought was going to happen didn't happen. We all felt relieved. And I think we didn't think about it for very long after."

Nothing crashed and martial law wasn't declared. The millennium began, and life went on as normal. People were hung over on New Year’s Day, the lights were still on, banks reopened on Jan. 2, grocery stores restocked, and of course, computers stayed online. 

Twenty years later, it's easy to dismiss the real panic people felt at the time.

"We can laugh now and say that Y2K was very sensationalist, that it was this overblown thing," George said. 

But, George noted, more broadly, the panic and hysteria leading up to Y2K can be seen as precursor for our current age of anxiety, which is fueled in part by social media. 

"It was definitely exemplary of something where, if you can have people be afraid and feel like this is very vital knowledge, it will earn clicks or earn views or earn, back then, magazine purchases," George said. "This was on the cover of Time magazine and of popular publications. In retrospect, it's almost a lesson that this is something that will regularly happen.

"I think it was something that is kind of innate to how media works and to how we look at things," he added. "And I think it's definitely an example of something that we see more and more of."

As for my family, we have never eaten so much pasta covered in my grandma's tomato sauce as we did in the months, weeks, days and hours of the year 2000. She donated all of the canned goods, water and blankets to charity. My grandfather was able get his garage back. And grandma has not jarred sauce since.