The 1982 World's Fair: An Idea Whose Time Has Come Again

Where: 525 Henley Street [map], Knoxville, TN, United States, 37902
July 19, 2008 at 4:40 PM | by | ()

Sometimes, it takes a good look back to see the present for what it is. Here, Victor Ozols plumbs the depths of his memory - as well as a handful of very retro websites - to suss out the meaning behind the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.

I can still recall the commercial jingle: "You've got to be there! The 1982 World's Fair! You've got to be there!" And I was there, a skinny eleven-year-old kid, traveling with his family to take in the cutting-edge concepts of a fair designed to explore the ways in which "Energy Turns the World." A brief look back underscores the fact that history always repeats itself, often in sad, pathetic ways. Just like today, people in 1982 were concerned that the world had become too reliant on fossil fuels, and there was a push to develop alternative energy sources. To that end, national pavilions across the fairgrounds displayed fancy new technology designed to harness the power of the sun, wind, water currents, biomass, and, yes, nuclear technology to provide the energy we'd surely need in the 21st century - even though it was a long way away. But as a Pac-Man-obsessed youngster I was mostly awed by the colorful displays and flashing lights of exhibits from the Philippines to France, and everywhere I turned it seemed like something very important was happening and that big changes were on the horizon.

Related Stories:
· World's Fair Park [Official Site]
· Flashback 1982: You've Got To Be There [gate21.net]
· World's Fair Travel Coverage [Jaunted]

[Photo: Victor Ozols]

Being the host country, the United States pavilion was among the most prominent, occupying an angular silver wedge of a building that was filled with a history of the energy industry and visions of our spacey Utopian future. The Saudi Arabians, meanwhile, brought with them a scale model of Mecca, which is as close as many non-Muslim visitors would ever get to seeing the real thing. I snapped a photo of an outrageous Philippine "Jeepney," which was adorned with enough chrome and mirrors to make any modern hot-rodder blush. And I dragged my parents and sister to the Hungarian pavilion, where the world's largest Rubik's Cube spun on an axis in honor of its inventor, Erno Rubik.

The biggest splash in the fair may have been made by the People's Republic of China. Its pavilion drew the longest lines in the park as people strained for a glimpse at some of the then-reclusive country's cultural treasures, including many works of art that had never before left the motherland. (In a telling nod to the wave of capitalism about to be unleashed, souvenir copies of just about everything were for sale.)

Yes, it was a hopeful time, rendered quaint by the ensuing years that saw withering support for alternative fuels and a retrenching of oil-based technology. And today, more than a quarter-century later, governments and industry once again hope to stimulate research into cleaner, more sustainable ways of powering the world. To that end I say, Good luck. I hope you mean it this time.

As for the fair itself, it's back, in a way. World's Fair Park, containing a handful of the old structures and plenty of walkways and green spaces, opened in 2002 as a venue for concerts and other events. And last year, the gold-dusted Sunsphere tower (pictured, in 1982) reopened with an observation deck and cafe, for those who want unparalleled views of Knoxville or just a fleeting taste of a bygone era. And no, it's not a storage warehouse for a wig store, but thank you to the Simpsons for the excellent reference.

Archived Comments:

Brilliant article, Vic.

Do you remember the Soviet pavallion? I bet you it would have been fun. You should expand this into a larger article about the parallels between now an '82. Would be good for the New Yorker or something? Another reason to visit Montreal - the '67 Expo site is fantastic. Buckminister Fuller geodesic domes and all that...

Nice Article

Glad to see that I am not the only one who remembers the fair. Also nice to see that someone actually read my story at Gate 21.net
Nice job...