1982 marked a special year in Knoxville’s history: The World’s Fair brought people from all over the world to Knoxville to see exciting new inventions, food and international displays.
The World’s Fair helped transform Knoxville from a small old industrial and college town to a bustling and innovative city with a vintage charm.
“It (World’s Fair) was an amazing thing for a city the size of Knoxville,” Steve Cotham, Knox County historian and head of the McClung Historical Collection, said.
The fair's theme, “Energy Turns Our World,” debuted many inventions pertaining to energy and its practical applications.
The most famous inventions that were presented at the fair included touchscreen monitors, the Rubik’s cube and Cherry Coke.
Jack Neely, executive director of the Knoxville History Project and crowd controller at the World’s Fair, described the touchscreen monitor as “the most significant thing introduced at the fair,” since it was the “great-grand-daddy” of the smartphones we have today.
“It was demonstrated by a technician in the U.S. Pavilion, one of those things you had to look fast to notice,” Neely said.
Cotham noted that another technological invention debuted there was an early version of the cordless phone, a predecessor to modern phones.
While we may not see touch screens and Cherry Coke as staple Knoxville items, the Sunsphere and the amphitheater remain two of Knoxville's star symbols.
“They still resonate as a part of history,” Cotham said. “The idea was that it was going to be an iconic structure.”
The Sunsphere, which was built solely for the World’s Fair, contributed heavily to the event's theme.
“The Sunsphere became the fair's theme structure,” Neely said. “It was an energy exposition, and the Sunsphere symbolizes the source of all energy on Earth.”
Even though the World Fair took place over 30 years ago, the Sunsphere still stands as Knoxville’s signature structure.
“It's the first thing kids think of when they draw a picture of Knoxville,” Neely said.
While the Sunsphere serves as the most popular symbol of Knoxville, the amphitheater that was built for a majority of the performances in the 1982 World’s Fair is still used as a performance space today.
While proud of the amphitheater, Doug McCarty, UT Architecture and Design alumnus who was the lead designer of the Tennessee Amphitheater, emphasizes the World’s Fair's impact on the overall landscape of the valley, as the preparation for the World Fair transformed the valley from a “derelict” place into a “very nice park for the community.”
While the Sunsphere and amphitheater are edifices demonstrating the architectural impact of the World’s Fair on Knoxville, Petro’s Chili and Chips contributes to the alimental impact.
Petro’s made its debut in the 1982 World’s Fair through Joe and Carol Schoentrup, a couple from Spokane, Washington.
Previously called “Petroleum Belly” to fit the fair theme, the name was shortened to Petro’s, and it became the Knoxville-based franchise people know today.
Petro’s had a “Retro Petro Day” on which they reduced the prices of Petro’s fare to $2, which was the price in 1982, to celebrate their 35th anniversary this year. Petro’s also sells coffee mugs with a World’s Fair theme.
The World’s Fair introduced touchscreens and Cherry Coke to the world and brought about the Sunsphere, amphitheater and Petro’s to Knoxville.
Walking through the city, it's clear that the atmosphere of the 1982 World’s Fair is still alive today.