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Media hype alerted public to potential of serious Y2K problems

Website clearing house for bug-related information

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

BRAMPTON, Ontario - Now over a year ago, the much ‘feared’ Y2K came and went without major computer failures and high tech-related disasters. Still there were dozens of mishaps worldwide, according to the UN-sponsored International Y2K Cooperation Center. Computer consultants and programmers had nipped it in the bud, so to speak. South African-Dutch-Canadian consultant Peter de Jager who for years warned governments and business about serious problems ahead, still feels stung by what largely turned out to be a non-event. His website,, functioned as the world’s clearing house for bug-related information. Some think it all was a multi-billion dollar hoax.

In his 1996 article called Doomsday 2000, computer consultant Peter de Jager - he did not pick the title - essentially warned programmers to take care of the Y2K problem if they wanted to avoid some computers breaking down on New Year’s Eve 1999. The problem hinged on older chips not recognizing the two-digits most commonly used to identify the calendar year: how could it know that 00 of 2000 would not be interpreted as 1900? To change the two digit field into a four digit one is not as simple as it may appear at the first glance.

The problem was best illustrated in a Kazakhstan government building where the elevator would not operate until the date was reset to 1999. Breathalyzer machines in Hong Kong did not work either nor did taxi meters in NanJing in China. Nuclear power plants in Spain and Japan also had difficulties, be it restricted to administrative systems. But what if banking machines had not functioned on New Year’s Day 2000 or a water system had failed?

The punch of De Jager’s article Doomsday 2000 likely had the greatest effect on the media, always ready to jump on a good story when it sees one. The hype created mass anxiety, best demonstrated with the eagerness by which 200.000 copies of a book predicting a Y2K-caused economic collapse were snapped up. A home improvement supply chain sold out its inventory of electrical generators with customers also stocking up on non-perishable food, blankets and flashlights in case of power failures. The U.S. Federal Reserve made available billions of standby credit to defend banks from mass cash withdrawal spurred by panic.

However while the media by mid 1999 still focussed on looming Y2K troubles, De Jager increasingly became convinced that his warnings were being heeded and that as a result New Year’s Eve would pass uneventful. To try convince disbelieving reporters of his newly found assurance, he told them he would spend New Year’s Eve on an airplane enroute to Europe. The following morning the call from a reporter awoke De Jager with the statement, “So it was all a hoax.” De Jager since has heard this sentiment repeated many times, causing him much anxiety.

For much of the 1990s, the immigrant’s son crisscrossed the globe - he missed funerals of close relatives during that time because of pressing commitments - to help government and business avoid Y2K problems. Although well paid for his consultants’ work - he had hired eight assistants - De Jager never took advantage of the situation by investing in suppliers of Y2K solutions. He turned down huge endorsements, did not sell his Web site because it was not money he was after. If he had been, he could have earned enough to have made him very rich.