7 Problems Y2K Actually Caused

Employees at the Niagara Mohawk Power Company control facility in Buffalo, New York, go through a round of Y2K testing toward the end of December 1999.
Employees at the Niagara Mohawk Power Company control facility in Buffalo, New York, go through a round of Y2K testing toward the end of December 1999.
Joe Traver / Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Remember Y2K? In the relatively early years of computer programming, many systems were designed to categorize dates by the last two digits of a year, ignoring the "19" at the start of the number to save memory space. That may have made computers work more efficiently, but it created a problem: What would happen when that date rolled over from 1999 to the year 2000—or “00”? Some worried that computers wouldn't know how to interpret an empty value for a year, and would read these dates as invalid, causing glitches around the world. Computer networks in use everywhere from the local McDonald's to nuclear arsenals were potentially running with the same vulnerability.

That was the apocalyptic reasoning behind the Y2K scare: The would-be computer cataclysm that was supposed to cripple banks and governments when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000. We know now that humanity came out of Y2K relatively unscathed, after spending an estimated $300 billion to $600 billion to fix potential problems in the years before the millennium. But still, a few issues did pop up—some caused a real headache, while others provided a bit of a laugh. Here are a few examples of the problems the Y2K bug actually did cause.

1. After Y2K, U.S. spy satellites stopped working for days.

The United States was one of the most proactive countries when it came to dealing with the impending Y2K bug. The nation as a whole spent at least $100 billion on fixes—with approximately $9 billion of that coming from the federal government. The intelligence and defense systems in the Pentagon got much of that funding (around $3.5 billion), but despite months of pricey computer patches and hardware overhauls, the government still had issues with important spy satellites for nearly three days after the new year. The feeds produced a stream of indecipherable information before the satellites were up and running again.

Three days may not seem too catastrophic, but one Pentagon official described the situation as a significant problem. Once the root of the problem was discovered, officials realized it wasn’t the bug itself that cut off communication; it was caused by the software patch that was designed to fix the issue in the first place. Oops!

2. On Y2K, some poor person got charged over $91,000 for renting The General’s Daughter.

Renting The General’s Daughter—the ho-hum 1999 military thriller starring John Travolta that was bound for the bargain bin—wouldn’t be anyone’s proudest moment. But one upstate New Yorker quickly found himself (and his taste in movies) making headlines nationwide, after the Y2K bug seemingly focused its wrath on the computer system of his local VHS rental store. The glitch erroneously reported that the man's copy of the tape was 100 years overdue and presented him a bill for over $91,250 on New Year's Day. The problem was quickly fixed, and the customer was given a free video rental for his troubles.

3. Japanese nuclear plants gave workers a scare during Y2K.

It’s bad enough to have to work on New Year’s Eve, but doing so in a nuclear power plant on Y2K, when apocalyptic rhetoric was coming to a head, must have been torture. And if that wasn't bad enough, just two minutes after midnight, alarms began going off. It happened at the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant after computers picked up a problem with a device that measured the temperature of the surrounding seawater. The ordeal only lasted around 10 minutes before everything was corrected, and no serious issues were discovered.

Another similar event took place at the Shika Nuclear Power Station, after a "Y2K glitch" caused some of the plant’s alarm systems to go offline. Worst of all, a computer at a government office that monitors the plant at all times went dead along with the alarm system. There were other minor hiccups like this around Japan, but all were immediately contained and corrected. Officials at the time would not confirm if all these events were even directly linked to the Y2K bug or were just standard, momentary glitches.

4. The U.S. Naval Observatory was temporarily out of step during Y2K.

A photo of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.
A look inside the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., on December 29, 1999.
Michael Smith / Getty Images / Hulton Archive

The U.S. Naval Observatory’s whole job is to be on time; the agency was established in 1830 to care for the country’s navigational instruments and evolved into becoming the official timekeeper of the United States. So you can understand how embarrassing it was for the agency’s website to declare the date as January 1, 19100 in the early hours of Y2K. Though the Navy would call it a “black eye,” the issue was fixed less than an hour after it was initially reported.

5. Y2K caused a newborn to be registered as 100 years old.

One of the most common Y2K problems had to do with computers being unable to recognize people's ages accurately. In Denmark, the country's first "millennium baby" got an auspicious start to life when the hospital's computers originally registered it as 100 years old. Then the computer system for the German opera company, Deutsche Oper, automatically reverted its dates back to 1900 on January 1, 2000. This caused all the ages of employees and their children to be taken from the last two digits of their birth year, meaning someone born in 1990 would be classified as 90 years old. This temporarily prevented employees from collecting child subsidies from the government normally included on their payroll, since, according to the opera company's computers, mothers and fathers of young children were now the parents of bright-eyed and rowdy nonagenarians.

6. A lot of people were stuck with Y2K survival kits.

Taking advantage of the apocalyptic fears surrounding Y2K, plenty of companies released all manner of “Y2K survival kits” in the months leading up to the supposed doomsday. This soon became a multi-million-dollar industry, with one company, appropriately called Preparedness Resources, raking in $16 million by selling supply boxes made up of dehydrated food, water purifiers, battery-free flashlights, blankets, and waterproof matches. The real preparedness came from Scott Sperry, Preparedness Resources's president, who instituted a “no return” policy on all the kits he sold.

7. Y2K made one man in Germany a temporary millionaire.

In Germany, the Y2K bug was the prime suspect in the case of a man who suddenly found himself quite a bit wealthier in January 2000. Apparently his bank account had randomly been credited about $6 million, with the date on the transaction reading December 30, 1899. Officials at the time weren't sure if the millennium glitch was responsible for the man's sudden cash flow, but his good fortunes likely didn't last long.

Plenty of other issues involving banks, hospitals, transit authorities, and other agencies occurred, but most were just temporary nuisances that were barely notable enough to make the local news. After all, Hotmail displaying the year as "3900" for a few hours isn't exactly enough to get people rioting in the streets.

While the Y2K panic now is usually thought of as an overreaction, the lack of any real issues might have been because of the hundreds of billions of dollars poured into the fixes in the years beforehand. In an interview on CNN, Bill Gates said that Y2K "ended up being a fairly minor issue because people really worked together. If people had ignored the thing then we would be seeing the real impact."

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

17 Facts About Airplane! On Its 40th Anniversary

Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays (with Otto) in Airplane! (1980).
Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays (with Otto) in Airplane! (1980).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Shot on a budget of $3.5 million, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker wrote and directed Airplane!, a movie intended to parody the onslaught of disaster movies that graced movie theater screens in the 1970s. The comedy classic, which arrived in theaters on July 2, 1980, ended up making more than $83.4 million in theaters in the United States alone, and resurrecting a few acting careers in the process. Here are some things you might not have known about the comedy classic on its 40th anniversary.

1. Airplane! was almost a direct parody of the 1957 movie Zero Hour!

Shorewood, Wisconsin childhood friends Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker grew up and moved to Los Angeles, where they were responsible for the sketch comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater. The trio made a habit of recording late-night television, looking for commercials to make fun of for their video and film parodies, which is how they discovered Zero Hour!, which also featured a protagonist named Ted Stryker (in Airplane! it's Ted Striker). In order to make sure the camera angles and lighting on Airplane! were matching those of Zero Hour!, the trio always had the movie queued up on set. Yes, the three filmmakers did buy the rights to their semi source material.

2. Universal thought Airplane! was too similar to their Airport franchise.

Universal released four plane disaster movies in the seventies: Airport in 1970; Airport 1975 (confusingly in 1974); Airport ‘77; and The Concorde ... Airport ‘79. Helen Reddy portrayed Sister Ruth in Airport 1975 and was game to play Sister Angelina in Airplane! before Universal stepped in and threatened to sue. Instead, the role went to Maureen McGovern, who sang the Oscar-winning theme songs to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno—two movies that were also “disaster” movies, albeit ones not involving a plane.

3. David Letterman, Sigourney Weaver, and other future stars auditioned for Airplane!

In early conversations regarding Airplane!, Paramount Studios suggested Dom DeLuise for what would eventually become Leslie Nielsen’s role, and Barry Manilow for the role of Ted Striker, but they were never asked to audition.

4. Chevy Chase was mistakenly announced as the star of Airplane!.

Chevy Chase was erroneously announced as the star of Airplane! in a 1979 news item in The Hollywood Reporter.

5. The role of Roger Murdock was written with Pete Rose in mind.

Pete Rose was busy playing baseball when Airplane! was shot in August, so they cast Kareem Abdul-Jabbar instead.

6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got a pretty swanky carpet out of his Airplane! gig.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Peter Graves, and Rossie Harris in Airplane! (1980)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rossie Harris, and Peter Graves in Airplane! (1980).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s agent insisted on an extra $5000 to the original offer of a $30,000 salary so that the basketball legend could purchase an oriental rug he'd had his eye on.

7. Peter Graves thought the Airplane! script was "tasteless trash."

Peter Graves eventually found the humor in the film, including the pedophilia jokes, and agreed to play Captain Oveur. Graves's wife was glad he took the role; she laughed throughout the premiere screening.

8. No, the child actor playing young Joey didn't know what Peter Graves was actually saying.

Rossie Harris was only 9 years old when he played the role of Joey, so did not understand the humor in Turkish prisons, gladiator movies, or any of Oveur’s other comments. But by the time he turned 10 and saw the movie, Harris had apparently figured it out.

9. Airplane! marked Ethel Merman's final film appearance.

"The undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage” played a disturbed soldier who believed he was Ethel Merman. Merman passed away in 1984.

10. Michael Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul was in Airplane!.

Jonathan Banks plays air traffic controller Gunderson.

11. Airplane!'s three-director setup caused legal problems.

The Directors Guild of America ruled that Abrahams and the two Zuckers couldn’t all be credited for directing a movie, nor be credited under the single “fictitious name of Abrahams N. Zuckers.” A DGA rep was on set to make sure that only Jerry Zucker spoke to the actors. What he saw was Jerry Zucker next to the camera, who would then go to a nearby trailer where the other two were watching the takes on a video feed, and come back to give notes to the actors after conferring with his partners. A DGA executive board eventually gave the three one-time rights to all share the credit.

12. A BIT ABOUT BLIND POLISH AIRLINE PILOTS WAS WRITTEN AND FILMED.

Blind singer José Feliciano, and lookalikes of blind singers Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, played Polish airline co-pilots. The Polish-American League protested, and it was determined by the writer-directors that the idea wasn’t funny enough to stay in the movie.

13. Robert Hays was starring in a TV show at the same time he was filming Airplane!

Robert Hays, the actor who played Ted Striker, had to race back and forth between the sets of Angie and Airplane! for two very busy weeks. The theme song to Angie was performed by the one and only Maureen McGovern.

14. Robert Hays was—and is—a licensed pilot.

He can even fly the ones with four engines.

15. Leslie Nielsen had a lot of fun with his fart machine.

Leslie Nielsen sold portable fart machines for $7 apiece on set, causing a brief epidemic of fart noises emanating from most of the cast and crew and delaying production. When they were shooting Hays’s close-up, Nielsen used the machine after every other word of his line, “Mr. Striker, can you land this plane?”

16. Stephen Stucker came up with all of Johnny's lines.

Lloyd Bridges and Stephen Stucker in Airplane! (1980)
Stephen Stucker and Lloyd Bridges in Airplane! (1980).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Stephen Stucker was a member of the Kentucky Fried Theater. His line “Me John, Big Tree” was part of an old riff he used to do, which continued with him going down on his knees and putting an ear to the ground to hear when a wagon train was arriving.

17. The original rough cut of Airplane! was 115 minutes long.

After screenings at three college campuses and two theaters, the film was cut down to 88 minutes.