On a recent trip home to Knoxville, Tennessee, I had a flashback. Not an acid flashback (I don't think). We were weaving through the hilly streets of downtown in the shadow of the Sunsphere, a discoball of a monument built for the 1982 World's Fair, and suddenly I was there in the crowd, staring at the future.
It makes sense that the Sunsphere would spark such a vision. After all, it was because of the 1982 World's Fair that I'm even alive, and so for me, the fair was the future. It was also a big deal for the city of Knoxville, which got the idea of boosting its global profile with a fair from a similar event in Spokane, Washington. The fair served as a rallying cry for all of East Tennessee to show the world that they weren't so backwoods any more. As such, the fair was also the birthplace of such futuristic inventions as the touchscreen and Cherry Coke. It also hosted one of the first public demonstrations of an exciting new invention: the cellular phone. I'll come back to all that in a minute, though.
If you've never been to Knoxville, you might've heard about years ago, when an episode of The Simpsons poked fun at the city. You know the one, where Bart gets a fake ID and an outdated travel guide that convinces him to head south—or whichever direction you have to drive from the stateless Springfield to Tennessee. In Knoxville, there was a fair, but it just wasn't a county fair. It wasn't even a Europe fair. It was a world's fair.
When Bart and his pals finally arrive, Knoxville is an awful dump. The World's Fair, of course, had happened almost 15 years before, and weeds sprung up from cracks in the crumbling fair grounds. The Sunsphere, a rickety orb of broken windows, served as a warehouse for a wig store, and after the boys realize they're stranded, Nelson throws a rock and knocks it over. Wigs spill out all over Knoxville, when the great Wigsphere hits the ground.
While the episode enraged my 12-year-old self, I now realize that the depiction of Knoxville was not too far off base, at the time. The Sunsphere sat there unused and in disrepair. (There were never any wigs inside.) A few years before, they had to demolish the main pavilion, because it was damaged beyond repair. By the time I started going to rock concerts on a nearby knoll, the fair that had promised a brighter future for Knoxville, which The Wall Street Journal once called "a scruffy little city," was a distant memory. Instead of delivering on its utopian promise, the event had brought heartbreak for some and jail time for others.
It wasn't all bad, though. When looked down at the old fairgrounds a couple weeks ago, I imagined booths set up, flying flags from all over the world and showing off exciting new inventions. The Hungarian delegation even had a giant Rubik's Cube. Australia brought some "paraboloid mirror reflectors used to harness the sun's energy and generate power." ("Energy turns the world" was the fair's motto.) Japan even showed off some new-fangled "video discs" that beat the pants off both VHS and Betamax.
The touchscreen, however, was all-American. Developed by Dr. Sam Hurst, who worked at the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the precursor to the smartphone screen in your pocket debuted in the American pavilion. The so-called AccuTouch was actually a transparent touch-sensitive panel that was installed over a television display; there were 33 on display at the fair. Thanks in part to the publicity, Hurst's company, Elographics, was one of the fastest-growing private companies in the world after the fair. And they're still making screens, albeit with more competition these days.
The cell phone was another head-turner. By the time 1982 rolled around, various iterations of a wireless phone you could take anywhere had been around for a few years, but few people outside the labs of major electronics and telecom companies had actually seen one in real life. This one was actually installed in a car, making it an even cooler-sounding "car phone." The big draw wasn't just looking at this newfangled device, though. If your name got picked out of a hat, you could actually place a call to anywhere in the United States. From a car!
My mom was living in a treehouse at the time—she also had a one-eared goat named Van Goat—but she worked right around the corner from the World's Fair site. Every day, she went down to the car phone exhibit, hoping her name would be drawn. It never was. However, during happy hour on one of these excitement-packed summer days, she won something else. She met my dad. He was an unlikely Mainer who got a good gig working as maitre d' at one of the fancier hotels in town. Housing was tight at the time so my dad lived in a van down by the river. (Seriously.) He was saving up to open his own restaurant.
The World's Fair made it happen. You see, this event was a big deal for a scruffy little city like Knoxville, and a lot of money changed hands. Ahead of the fair, Knoxville's mayor had appointed local bank owner Jake Butcher to lead an exploratory committee. Butcher would go on to become the fair's chief promoter. This is where the utopian dream starts to fall apart.
The fair went well. Everybody had fun. Some people got to try out a cell phone. Cherry Coke was imbibed. When all was said and done, the event itself actually even turned a tiny profit of $57. The city of Knoxville, however, was not so lucky. It ended up $46 million in debt. And that Jake Butcher guy? He turned about to be a total fraud. The year after the fair, his bank failed, and an investigation later showed a host of bad behavior on Butcher's part, including illegal loans and forged documents. In 1985, he plead guilty to bank fraud and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He served only seven.
Other folks ended up broke after the fair not because they were criminals but because they were unlucky. In the run up to the fair, an acquaintance of my dad had the bright idea to open a fast food fried catfish restaurant way out in the mountains. When the fair started, however, not many visitors made the trek out, and the owner soon found himself in serious financial trouble. He was just one of many entrepreneurs who moved to the Knoxville area hoping to make a few bucks off the fair. And he was not the only one that failed. He's certainly one of the few who had the balls to split town and leave the bank with the bill.
Not long after their wedding, my mom and dad bought the restaurant for a song. They ditched the fried catfish idea and decided to go with a fine dining experience, complete with white tablecloths and moonshine tastings, if you were a regular. Then my sister came along, then me. When the 90s rolled around, my mom finally did get to use a car phone. She had her own installed in a Chrysler LeBaron convertible, though it cost about a dollar a minute to use. My dad became the maitre d' of his own place, like he'd always wanted, though he ended up in the kitchen more often than he expected. I ended up washing dishes.
Last year, my sister got her MBA from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and her class planned a party inside the Sunsphere. While it was home to a restaurant during the World's Fair, it was abandoned for the next 25 years. During the two decades I spent in in the area, I never got to go inside, so for all I knew the place was indeed full of wigs. But when the elevator opened, it felt like stepping out of a time machine. Only, I couldn't tell if I was going forward or backwards in time. All sleek white lines and blue neon lights, the bar certainly had a futuristic feel to it, but I half expected to look down at the fair grounds and still see booths set up. Meanwhile, the servers typed in orders on touchscreens. Cell phones were obviously everywhere. And there was a wistful look in my mom's eyes.
"When was the last time you were up here, Mom?" I asked her.
"Well," she paused, "it would've been 1982, during the fair."
"Does it feel any different?"
"Nope," she replied without thinking about it. "Still surreal."