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Understanding the Millennium Change

created September 5, 1997
updated January 14, 2001

created September 5, 1997
updated January 14, 2001

The new millennium began in 2001!

Not on January 1st, 2000, when most people, communities and organizations promoted their millennium celebrations, planned blowout parties, and were set to cross over into the next era of human history. Consider the following facts about the calendar to which our society currently adheres:

The year 2000 was not the first year of the new millennium! Rather, it is was the last year of the previous millennium, the actual millennium being heralded in on January 1st, 2001.

The calendar we commonly follow is the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, with the help of astronomer Christopher Clavius, to correct errors in the previously used Julien calendar. These errors were causing the occurrence of the yearly equinoxes and solstices to drift away from their assigned calendar dates.

The new calendar continued to adopt the Julien's designation of the year as suggested by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in about AD 525. At that time it was he that proposed that the calendar's years be counted from the year of the birth of Christ, which would be designated AD 1 (anno Domini, "the year of the Lord"). The year before AD 1 was to be designated 1 BC (before Christ). This convention came to be adopted throughout Christendom during the next 500 years.

The significance of the way our calendar's years have been defined is that there was no year zero! Since the calendar started at year 1, the first decade of the calendar (the first 10 years) comprised the years 1 through 10, the second decade 11 through 20, the third 21 through 30, and so on. Likewise, the first century (the first 100 years) took place from year 1 through year 100, 101 through 200 defined the second century, and 201 through 300 the third.

The first millennium of our calendar (the first 1000 years) encompassed the year 1 through the year 1000. The years 1001 through 2000 make up the second millennium (the next 1000 years), and the year 2001 marks the first year in the following, or third millennium, which will last until the year 3000. This event was properly celebrated on December 31st, 2000.

January 1st, 2001 marked the beginning Third Millennium in human history, and likewise the beginning of the 21st Century, as reckoned by the current Gregorian calendar.

But we as a people love to celebrate, and we were soooo looking forward to our 1999 parties. I chose to celebrate 2000 as the final farewell to the second millennium, using December 31st, 1999 to kick off a full year of reverie, retrospection, and anticipation, culminating in a grand blowout during December 2000 to herald in the millennium correctly.

2000 also stands out as the year all of our old checks and stationary forms became useless (everything with the "19___" preprinted for the date). Will we go on writing our shorthand dates with an "00"? A friend has proposed that we instead abbreviate the year 2000 as MM, the roman numeral representing the number 2000.

More seriously, many computer programs previously in use also abbreviate the date with a two digit representation of the year. This practice became widespread in the early days of programming, when storage space for data was at a premium (hard drives were small and very expensive), so that databases for banks, public records, etc. would have more space available to hold information. Though storage space has since become expansive and cheap, old habits die hard, and many of the early applications still in use had not been updated. As a result, any system using dates for calculations, such as mortgage and loan applications, tax applications, payroll applications, accounting and billing applications, etc. might have failed to operate properly when the date rolled over to 00. Such applications may have incorrectly interpreted the date as January 1st, 1900, but others might have ceased to function at all.

Banks, credit card companies, and other major businesses spent several years overhauling their systems and procedures to prepare for the "Year 2000 Crisis", but it was hard to predict how widespread the effects would be. Some experts were proclaiming that the problem had been completely blown out of proportion by software consultants hoping to "cash in" on the fear that computer systems would become completely useless when the new dates came into effect. Others believed we had underestimated the problem, and that the Year 2000 problem would pop up in so many unexpected places that we'd best apply our best effort fixing and testing solutions and hope the problems that would be inevitably missed would be minor. These forecasters pointed out that the potential errors existed not only in software-based systems, but in hardware systems built on microprocessor chips.

Did you know that modern elevators contain electronics circuits that will shut down the system if the elevator does not receive scheduled inspections by a licensed inspector? When the date rolled, some believed that these elevators might think that they have not been inspected for 100 years! Would corporate employees returning to work on Monday, January 3rd, 2000 find their freezing offices inaccessible as the elevators and automated heating systems of their modern, automated office buildings shut themselves down over the holiday weekend?*

If the worst fears of programmers were true, we might have expected total societal collapse when phone systems, the Internet, information systems, storage systems, and security systems had suddenly gone haywire overnight. Lines of communication could have been completely broken. Social Security, Medicare, and corporate payroll and pension payments suddenly ceased. All bank records and interest calculations suddenly jumbled. Credit cards useless. Time-locked vaults to remain closed. Mass transit booking systems and operations systems dead. Airplanes falling from the sky. We might have found ourselves totally cut off from our assets and associates. Will our VCRs failing to record. Suddenly hurled into a post-apocalyptic existence reminiscent of "Mad Max". Should our fears of global conflict be supplanted by a possibility that our reliance on information processing, transfer, and storage will eventually be our downfall?

Of course, none of these doomsday predictions came to light as the ball dropped on December 31st, 1999. Many citizens considered the hysteria promoted in the media to be nothing more than a cruel hoax, but I believe it is a tribute to the programmers and businesses of the world to have risen to the task of preparing and repairing the multitude of potentially flawed systems in time to avoid disaster or even mere inconvenience. Small Y2K problems did indeed pop up here and there, but nothing that would come to effect society on a global scale.

In retrospect, it is amazing that we also survived the millennium-end cataclysms of September 13, 1999, when some expected the moon to go out of earth orbit as a result of the hubris of man's technology, causing disaster and destruction all over the planet, as "predicted" by a pop cult classic British sci-fi series of the 70s. What better time to have begun an extended year of celebration looking toward the future triumphs of the human race.

Information on the Gregorian and Julien Calendars is from
the 1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia for Windows (Grolier Interactive Inc., 1997);
The Cadillac Modern Encyclopedia (Cadillac Publishing Co. Inc., 1973);
and The Random House College Dictionary (Random House, 1979, 1975).

*Information on "the Year 2000 Crisis" is from the publication "Computerworld", a weekly computer newsmagazine.
A more recent article dispels some of the myths concerning this potential problem. Try searching their archives on "2000" and "elevator"
Visit them at www.computerworld.com.

Michelle Kennedy gave me the "MM" suggestion and a lot of the background info on the history of calendars.
She, in turn, got most of her information from those crazy Druids.

Predictions as to the possible severity of the Year 2000 problem are from my own warped mind.

© Copyright 1997, 2001 David W Creighton

All pages, images and info © Copyright 1997 - 2009 David W Creighton.
All rights reserved.