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
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
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
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
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
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