Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1493:  Y2K

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1493.

Today, let's talk about Y2K. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The last issue of Invention and Technology magazine before January 1st, 2000 is, understandably, filled with turn-of-the-century thoughts. An article by historian Robert Friedel in particular describes the forces that brought about the Y2K problem.

He begins by reciting allegations against programmers -- were they stupid, greedy, shortsighted, or setting us up so they could make a lot of money fixing the problem later? Of course the real causes were far subtler and not nearly so dramatic.

Programmers first wrote code in an embryonic world where nothing would last into the next year, much less the next millennium. In those days computer storage was very expensive. Cutting dates down to strings of only six numbers could mean big savings. And those punched cards once used to communicate with computers held only eighty characters each. Continuing information onto a second card was a big nuisance.

So we lopped off the first two digits every time we wrote a date. We weren't historians; we didn't know about technological persistence. When we built new computers, we made them compatible with older machines. When we wrote new programs, we picked up whatever chunks of older ones we could. The shortened dates followed us, and we weren't fully conscious they were there. They burrowed into nooks and crannies where we forgot them.

Stephen Jay Gould talks about incumbency. An incumbent artifact, though useless, will hang around until it's forced to leave. Your appendix is of no use, but it persists. The standard QWERTY keyboard is like that. Far better keyboards have been invented, but no matter. QWERTY is the incumbent. You and I use it still.

Another article in this magazine is coyly entitled The Y1936 Problem. The city of Los Angeles had gotten into electric power generation early. By 1936, the city was serving three hundred thousand customers with 50-Hertz AC current.

But Hoover Dam, with its 60 Hertz output, was just being finished. Los Angeles would have to switch over. That made little difference with most early electrical appliances. But the expensive new electrical clocks would now gain twelve minutes every hour.

So Los Angeles set up clock-conversion centers. Bring in your fancy clock, and five days later it'd come back with new gears. Retrofitting was phased in over eighteen months. Even then, 55,000 unfixable clocks had to be dumped into Los Angeles Harbor.

The Y2K problem is nothing new. All kinds of features linger like dirt in the corner, long after their purpose has been forgotten. Some of the first cars still had buggy-whip sockets by the window.

Those two dropped digits in our 20th-century dates represent neither stupidity nor malice -- any more than the human appendix does. They actually represent the enormous staying power of any technology, once we've accepted it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Friedel, R., Why You Need to Understand Y2K. Technology and Culture, Vol. 15, No. 3, Winter, 1999, pp. 24-31.

Kinsler, M., The Y1936 Problem. Technology and Culture, Vol. 15, No. 3, Winter, 1999. pg. 64.





The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.