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I came across an interesting time capsule-sort of article while running a search for today’s month and day (September 9) on Marginalia Search. On September 11, 1999, Mr. Conrad Weisert of Information Disciplines, Inc, published an article titled September 9 Hoax Takes in Mainstream Media.

An openclipart bug next to the text 9.9.99, depicting the 9.9.99 bug that wasn't.
I made this beautiful 9.9.99 bug art with a public domain bug image from Openclipart.

I remember talk about the Y2K bug in the lead-up to January 1, 2000, although it meant little to me because I was a kid and also because almost all of my “computer experience” was on home video game consoles. All I know is that I was awake for the 2000 edition of New Years and the world did not end.

However, while I remember the Y2K talk in 1999, I have no recollection of fears of computer catastrophes occurring on September 9, 1999, otherwise known as 9/9/99. Mr. Weisert described the phenomenon in his September 11, 1999 article:

Unlike the Y2K crisis, which is real even if outrageously unnecessary, ‘9/9/99’ was a pure hoax with no basis in reality. We don’t know where it originated, but we do know, to our amazement, that it managed to fool every major news organization. On NBC’s Today program, Katie Couric solemnly warned that some ‘older computers’ interpret a string of 9’s in ‘9/9/99’ as ‘a command to shut down’! That evening the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer echoed her assertion, as did most other major media.

Having never heard of the 9/9/99 fears, I was curious if I could find any other contemporaneous stories on the subject.

On September 5, 1999, Mr. Antony Barnett of The Guardian warned ominously that “Britain could face mayhem on Thursday.” The article, which appeared in a “Y2K bug” section of The Guardian, warned that some tech people were concerned because 9/9/99 “was used as a code by programmers in older systems to shut them down.” The article quoted Mr. Bill Smith, a senior operations manager at the Maritime Coastguard Agency, as noting that the agency was “taking the potential risks of the 9/9/99 bug very seriously,” while also explaining that he was most concerned about older chips?? from “Third World countries.” The Guardian also reported that other UK agencies including the government’s nuclear watchdog and the National Institutes of Health began making preparations for any potential issues over the summer. However, in the midst of some dire warnings, Mr. Paul Barry-Walsh from a company called Safetynet believed that any potential issues with 9/9/99 bug were more likely “to cause inconvenience” than anything else.

However, others threw cold water on the 9/9/99 fears. The UK edition of ZDNet reported on September 3, 1999, that many “experts,” including groups that were preparing for potential Y2K issues, were unconvinced that 9/9/99 would be a dark day. Mr. Andy Kite, described as a millennium bug expert with an analyst firm, stated the sand of 9/9/99 fears:

It is in the order of credibility of the abominable snowman. In the whole of our research, we have only had a tiny handful of verified 9/9/99 problems and none of them would have generated an inch of news print.

In the September 11, 1999 post I began this article with, Mr. Conrad Weisert raised questions about the reporting of the 9/9/99 fears:

You didn’t have to be a computer expert to have recognized the absurdity of the 9/9/99 story. You just needed enough curiosity and common sense to ask a couple of probing questions. Isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do?

(Is that what journalists are supposed to do? 1999 was an innocent time.)

Fortunately, notwithstanding dire warnings from prominent newscasters and legacy media outlets, 9/9/99 appears to have passed with little fanfare. CNN reported at 12:43 AM?? EST September 9, 1999, that the feared crisis was not coming to pass. Mr. John Koskinen, chairman of the President’s Counsel on Year 2000 Convention, stated that the U.S. Government had been in contact with Australia, New Zealand, and other countries in the region that entered September 9, 1999 hours before North America, and that those countries had “no problems to report.” Looking forward to the new year, then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson stated that of 500 utilities in the United States and Canada that had been tested, the power grid was “99 percent ready for the millennium.”

The 9/9/99 fears appear to have mostly faded from memory, but Mr. Randy Alfred wrote a retrospective for Wired on the twelfth anniversary of the day. In describing the basis for the 9/9/99 fears, Mr. Alfred added a note that I did not see in the original 1999 reports. First, he explained that some of the fears were based on the fact that “some data systems used the digits 9999 to mark the end of a file.” However, important computers had already made it through a 9999 in 1999 without incident:

Sept. 9 in fact was not even the first 9999 date of the year. That came on April 9, the 99th day of ’99. Any dating system that simply counted days from the first of the year and used just two numbers for the year might have been vulnerable. But nothing of note happened.

(9999 is one 9 too many.)

I have little to offer on the validity of particular 9/9/99 fears since it is beyond the scope of my expertise, but it was interesting to learn about an incident-which-wasn’t that I missed at the time. Perhaps I was distracted by a bit of video game history that occurred on September 9, 1999. Earlier this week, I wrote an article inspired by the September 9, 1999 event that I do remember, the North American release of the Sega Dreamcast. Sega, a company that at the time was one of the three major players in the video game console industry, not only launched the Dreamcast in the West on September 9, 1999, but also made the unique date a significant part of its U.S. marketing. My article earlier in the week covered Sega’s Dreamcast marketing in Japan, where the console launched in late 1998.