Weird and Wonderful: Knoxville’s 1982 World’s Fair

Knoxville 1982 World's Fair

If you’ve lived in this area for any length of time, you can’t avoid the legacy of the Knoxville 1982 World’s Fair held here in 1982.

Knoxvillians love to toss around the often-misattributed “scruffy little city” quote, tend to hold strong opinions about the Sunsphere, and almost inevitably have a piece of memorabilia somewhere in their homes, if not a reproduction World’s Fair t-shirt.

As a tribute to our scruffy city and its most famous event, here are a few facts that even the most devoted resident may not know about Knoxville 1982 World’s Fair…

President Jimmy Carter formally invited 136 nations to participate by Presidential Proclamation, 22 of which sent delegates and exhibits. International guests of note included Hassan bin Talal, the Crown Prince of Jordan, and Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines and famous owner of a record-breaking shoe collection.

Knoxville’s fair was inspired by a 1974 World’s Fair held in Spokane, Washington, but it was actually not the first World’s Fair held in Tennessee – Nashville hosted one in 1897.

In 1985, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the fair made a total profit of $57 (no, that’s not a typo), though they also pointed out that the City of Knoxville was left $46 million in debt. At least we came out better than New Orleans, which purportedly lost $110 million on their 1984 fair.

Among the inventions debuted at the fair were touch screen displays and Cherry Coke, with concessions provided by what we now know as Petro’s Chili and Chips. The dish was originally sold as “Petroleum Belly,” in keeping with the energy theme of the fair.

An official World’s Fair fishing knot was invented for the occasion and selected by contest.

In an episode of The Simpsons that aired on March 31, 1996, Bart Simpson uses a fake driver’s license to go on a road trip to Knoxville after reading about the World’s Fair in an outdated guidebook. Upon their arrival, they discover the Sunsphere has been converted into a warehouse for a wig shop. It then collapses, crushing their rental car.

A large, automated Rubik’s Cube was commissioned by the Hungarian delegation, which placed it at the entrance to their pavilion. Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik was even present to view it and meet his fans. Since the fair, the giant Rubik’s Cube was frequently moved around Knoxville, periodically disappearing and resurfacing. Today, it may or may not be under a bridge near Mechanicsville.

Do you or your relatives have memories of Leonard Nemoy hawking Magnavox TVs, the lines at the Chinese Pavilion, or Heinz pickle pins? Let us know in the comments!

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