If you were born in 1986, you're in good company! Here's our annual list celebrating 30 things (people, companies, TV shows, books, inventions) turning 30 this year.
1. MARY KATE AND ASHLEY OLSEN
Born on June 13, 1986, the Olsen twins played Michelle Tanner on the TV show Full House starting in 1987, when they were just 9 months old. They continued to act together through the mid-2000s and are now fashion designers.
2. THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW
Oprah Winfrey hosted the half-hour talk show AM Chicago starting in 1983. What started as a fairly low-key show rocked Chicago, rapidly overtaking Donahue in Chicago TV ratings. Film critic Roger Ebert (who had been on the air for years himself) encouraged Winfrey to sign a TV syndication deal, expanding her talk show to an hour. She did it, and the rest is history.
The Oprah Winfrey Show launched in its new hour-long format in September 1986. It crushed Donahue in national ratings, and ran through May 2011. Winfrey became a fixture of American TV spanning decades, and her film acting (and producing) career cemented her as a major American voice.
Other notable 1986 TV launches: Pee-wee's Playhouse, Perfect Strangers, Designing Women, Double Dare, ALF, Matlock, and L.A. Law.
3. THE CHALLENGER DISASTER
On the cold morning of January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff, killing the seven astronauts onboard. Among the seven was New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space; because McAuliffe was onboard, American schools tuned in to watch the launch, and many children witnessed the horror.
The Challenger disaster shocked the nation and the world, leading to a series of famous investigations, including famous figures such as Chuck Yeager and Richard Feynman. The disaster put NASA's Space Shuttle program on its heels for years, and led to a major rethinking of how to deal with the inherent risk of crewed space launches.
4. PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIOS AND LUXO JR.
Pixar originally formed in the late 1970s as a division of Lucasfilm, working on computer-generated special effects for movies; in those days, it was simply called the Computer Graphics Division. In 1986, Pixar spun off as its own company, and Steve Jobs became the majority shareholder. The studio, then with only 44 employees, also released Luxo Jr., a fully computer-animated short film that rocked the world with its delightfully expressive characters—and gave the company its desk lamp mascot. Luxo, Jr. was the first computer animated film to be nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar.
5. LADY GAGA, USAIN BOLT, LINDSAY LOHAN, DRAKE ...
Oh, baby: 1986 was a big year for births! Musician Lady Gaga (born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) was born on March 28. Actor Lindsay Lohan was born on July 2. Sprinter Usain Bolt was born on August 21. Musician Drake (Aubrey Drake Graham) was born on October 24.
Game of Thrones stars Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke were both born that year as well, along with Megan Fox, Shia LeBeouf, Robert Pattinson, Lena Dunham, and Lea Michele. Computer programmer and activist Aaron Swartz was also born in 1986.
6. GREEN DAY (AS "SWEET CHILDREN")
As 14-year-olds, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt formed the punk band Sweet Children, which would quickly become Green Day. Although they didn't perform a gig until 1987, the group formed in 1986. In the video above, shot in 1990, Green Day perform at Pinole Valley High School in California, the high school from which Dirnt graduated. (Armstrong dropped out of PVHS to pursue music on his 18th birthday—a surprisingly reasonable choice, given their later success.)
Other notable bands formed in 1986: Alice N' Chains, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, The Clarks, Cowboy Junkies, Cypress Hill, Geto Boys, Goo Goo Dolls, Jesus Jones, King Missile, The Lemonheads, Manic Street Preachers.
7. FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF
On June 11, 1986, American audiences were treated to an instant classic, as Ferris Bueller—played by Matthew Broderick—took his "day off." The film clearly had a lasting effect on the mental_floss staff. Some past coverage:
15 Fun Facts About Ferris Bueller's Day Off; Ferris Bueller's Day Off: The 25th Anniversary Quiz; Watch the Ferris Bueller TV Show (If You Dare); Name the Cliques That Support Ferris Bueller; Lessons From the "Real" Ferris Bueller; The Late Movies: 6 Re-Edited Ferris Bueller's Day Off Trailers; Crimes Perpetrated by Ferris Bueller (and Accomplices) During His Day Off.
8. GERALDO OPENS AL CAPONE'S VAULT
On April 21, 1986, Geraldo Rivera hosted The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults, in which he and a team of experts opened vaults purportedly owned by Al Capone, finding ... basically nothing but trash. The much-hyped special was a serious let-down (where were the guns, bodies, money, and other titillating material?), but it created a cultural touchstone, a shared joke for over-hyping a mystery. Today, Rivera actually lets you watch the whole show for free on his website. Spoiler: Not much happens.
9. THE CHERNOBYL DISASTER
On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine suffered a catastrophic Level 7 accident (the highest-magnitude event recorded at the time) leading to dozens of deaths (at least), and creating a massive "Exclusion Zone" around the plant due to danger from radioactivity. By December 1986, a giant concrete "sarcophagus" enclosed the failed reactor, massively reducing the risk to workers in the area.
The only other Level 7 event in record is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which occurred in Japan in 2011.
10. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (NES)
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released in 1985 in North America, quickly becoming a hit and reviving the market for home video game consoles. On February 21, 1986, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda, an action-adventure game for the console that would spawn a franchise nearly as beloved as the earlier Mario Bros. games. In the original Zelda game, Link must rescue Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. This game was such a big deal that when I was a kid, we sat around on the school bus and traded maps showing the secret locations of special loot. The subsequent Zelda games have continued the tradition of excellence, and tend to feature long, deep, involved gameplay.
Some other notable NES games released in 1986: Castlevania, Double Dribble, Ikari Warriors, Kid Icarus, Metroid, and Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (this is arguably SMB II in Japan).
11. MADONNA'S TRUE BLUE
Madonna's album True Blue debuted on June 30, 1986. It was a brilliant pop record of the time, including the hits "Live to Tell," "Papa Don't Preach," "True Blue," "Open Your Heart," and "La Isla Bonita." In 1991, the Guinness Book of World Records reported that True Blue was the best-selling album by a female artist, having then sold more than 17 million copies. (It has now sold a total of 25 million.) This was the album that cemented Madonna's status as a pop icon.
12. BON JOVI'S SLIPPERY WHEN WET
Slippery When Wet was Bon Jovi's third studio album, but for fans like me, it was the first time we'd heard of the band. This one featured "Livin' on a Prayer," "You Give Love a Bad Name," and "Wanted Dead or Alive." It was an enormous hit, at a time when dudes still had big '80s hair even if they were playing anthemic pop rather than metal.
13. INTEL'S 386 MICROPROCESSOR
In June of 1986, Intel began manufacturing its latest microprocessor, the 80386, known to mere mortals as a "386" (pronounced "three-eighty-six"). The 32-bit chip became the heart of PCs for years to come, with flavors eventually including the "SX" (a budget model), "SL" (laptop variant), and "DX" (workstation class).
The 386 was a huge deal because it cemented the architecture of Intel's chips for the following decades. The chip in the laptop I'm using right now traces its design directly to the 386. Indeed, Intel continued producing 386 chips until 2007 (!), because it had become such a standard part for embedded systems. While today's Intel chips are radically faster and more complex, their 386 heritage is still there.
14. OFFICE DEPOT
Office Depot was founded in Florida in 1986; its first store was located in Fort Lauderdale. By 1988, the company would have its IPO on the NASDAQ, with 26 stores spanning seven states. Today, Office Depot and OfficeMax are merged, and rival office-supply chain Staples has submitted a bid to buy Office Depot.
A few other notable companies founded in 1986: Five Guys, Ubisoft (makers of Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell, among others), and Bethesda Softworks (makes of The Elder Scrolls and zillions more games).
15. FOX BROADCASTING COMPANY
Fox started broadcasting on October 9, 1986. It set out to compete with the trio of big broadcasters that had been entrenched for decades: ABC, CBS, and NBC. Its first show? The Late Show, hosted by Joan Rivers.
A year later, Fox began its early slate of primetime programming, including Married... with Children, The Tracey Ullman Show, and 21 Jump Street. Of course, its longest-lasting hit, The Simpsons, didn't arrive until December of 1989.
16. BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
Frank Miller created Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as a four-issue comic book miniseries running from February through June 1986. It's a very dark look at the Batman story, with major plot points involving nuclear bombs, conflict between Superman and Batman, and Batman confronting the reality of aging. It's also part of a key moment in comic book history, along with Watchmen, when comics turned dark and began to examine the role of the superhero in society.
17. PAUL SIMON'S GRACELAND
In the early 1980s, Paul Simon's musical career was in trouble. In a serious personal and professional funk, he visited Johannesburg, South Africa and played with local musicians, incorporating local rhythms and musical styles into his music (which had previously been mostly folk and a bit of pop). The resulting album, Graceland, was a massive hit, and it went on to win the 1987 Grammy for Album for the Year.
Graceland wasn't without controversy, though—Simon visited South Africa during the era of apartheid, at a time when many were boycotting the country due to the racist government policy. Simon said:
What was unusual about Graceland is that it was on the surface apolitical, but what it represented was the essence of the antiapartheid in that it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed. It was completely the opposite from what the apartheid regime said, which is that one group of people were inferior. Here, there were no inferiors or superiors, just an acknowledgement of everybody’s work as a musician. It was a powerful statement. We were able to accomplish that symbolically because music is so accessible and people liked it. And the political implications came later than they would have if the songs had been overtly political. And in that way Graceland was a different and slyer kind of political view.
Here's one more hit from the album:
18. THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (EPONYMOUS FIRST ALBUM)
On November 4, 1986, They Might Be Giants released their self-titled debut album (often referred to by fans as "The Pink Album"). Two singles from the album, "Don't Let's Start" and "(She Was A) Hotel Detective," are TMBG classics, and overall the record holds up—especially the videos! (See above for "Don't Let's Start," shot at the New York Pavilion of the 1964 World's Fair.) While it wasn't much of a commercial success, the record found a place on college radio. Two years later, TMBG would release Lincoln, and the rest is delightful music history.
19. STAND BY ME
"You guys wanna go see a dead body?" So begins the adventure in Stand By Me, likely the strongest coming of age movie of the 1980s. (And that's saying a lot.) With a cast including Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Keifer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, and John Cusack, the film is based on a Stephen King short story, "The Body."
In a 2011 interview, Wil Wheaton told NPR's All Things Considered:
[Director] Rob Reiner found four young boys who basically were the characters we played. I was awkward and nerdy and shy and uncomfortable in my own skin and really, really sensitive, and River was cool and really smart and passionate and even at that age kind of like a father figure to some of us, Jerry was one of the funniest people I had ever seen in my life, either before or since, and Corey was unbelievably angry and in an incredible amount of pain and had an absolutely terrible relationship with his parents.
20. HALLEY'S COMET'S MOST RECENT PERIHELION
Halley's Comet is a short-period comet, meaning that it becomes visible from earth roughly every 75 years. It's the only comet we know of that can conceivably return within one person's lifetime, allowing for two viewings (assuming you're very young when it first arrives). Fortunately, I was a kid when I first saw the comet in early 1986, so there's some chance I'll see it again in 2061. It's pretty much the only item on my bucket list.
21. STEPHEN KING'S IT
In September 1986, Stephen King's novel It arrived, and instantly instilled a generation with a deep fear of clowns. It was the best-selling book of the year in the United States, despite being released so late in the year.
22. LISTSERV EMAIL MANAGER
In 1986, email was both thriving and extremely obscure. In academia, email was a fast-growing way to communicate across distance, and some consumers were using email through paid online services. Email discussion lists were a relatively new phenomenon; they allowed users to send an email to a special email address, and have the message distributed automatically to all members of the group. (Prior to email lists, the most common way to engage in these kinds of discussions was USENET.)
Éric Thomas developed the LISTSERV program (also known as "Revised Listserv") to automate the handling of group email discussion groups. While a "LISTSERV" program existed before Thomas's invention, it required humans to subscribe and unsubscribe members, which was a huge hassle.
Thomas's program had a huge innovation: automated subscribe and unsubscribe. This allowed users to interact with software when they wanted to join or leave an email list, rather than relying on a human moderator. This key invention caused email discussion lists (often referred to as "listservs" because many were managed by Thomas's software) to boom.
23. RUTAN VOYAGER'S FLIGHT AROUND THE WORLD
From December 14 to 23, 1986, the Rutan Model 76 Voyager became the first aircraft to fly around the world without refueling or stopping. Pilots Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager (no relation to Chuck) departed Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert on December 14, and flew for just over nine days, returning to the same airfield after traveling 26,366 miles.
Today you can see the Voyager at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
Jim Henson's cult classic Labyrinth was released on June 27, 1986. Starring David Bowie in tight trousers, along with Jennifer Connelly, the Brian Froud-designed film featured a screenplay by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. George Lucas served as executive producer. Although the film was a disappointment at the box office, it gained a cult following on home video, and it was the last film directed by Henson before his death in 1990.
Trivia note: Gates McFadden choreographed Labyrinth (along with Henson's The Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan). She's better known for her role as Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but was a working choreographer long before. (Her choreography work is often credited to "Cheryl McFadden"; her full name is Cheryl Gates McFadden.)
25. HANDS ACROSS AMERICA
On Sunday, May 25, 1986, roughly 6.5 million people held hands, forming a human chain across the continental United States. The chain spanned 4125 miles, though it had some gaps. It was a fundraiser event run for USA for Africa, which had produced "We Are The World" the year before. Participants were asked to pony up $10 apiece to help the homeless; many did not donate, so the total amount raised wasn't as great as expected. Read Ethan Trex's writeup of the event for a deep dive on the greatest human chain of 1986!
26. Europe's "THE FINAL COUNTDOWN"
Swedish rock band Europe wrote "The Final Countdown" intending to use it as an opening number at concerts. To their surprise, the song became a huge hit when it was released as a single. Europe singer/songwriter Joey Tempest commented on the song:
... The ironic thing, though, is that the song was actually written for the fans. It was over six minutes long and was never meant to be a hit or anything like that. It was meant to be an opening for the “live” show. We were putting out our third album and we wanted a really “grand” opening for the show. So, I had that “riff” tucked away in a drawer since my college years and I took it out, found a tempo for it, wrote lyrics and it turned out to be a great opening for that album and for the show as well.
This classic song was introduced to a new generation by the TV series Arrested Development.
27. STADIUM EVENTS (NES)
Stadium Events is the rarest NES game released in the United States. An estimated 200 copies were sold before the game was yanked from shelves, and it now routinely sells for tens of thousands of dollars to collectors.
Designed for a short-lived "Family Fun Fitness" mat accessory, Stadium Events encouraged players to run in place, with the in-game characters responding to the real-world footfalls. While the game isn't particularly fun, its sheer rarity makes it extremely valuable to collectors (particularly NES completists, who attempt to own every NES cartridge ever produced).
28. GORBACHEV'S CALL FOR THE SPREAD OF GLASNOST
On February 25, 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev urged a "spread of glasnost," a term meaning "openness." Effectively, Gorbachev admitted that the U.S.S.R. needed to open up discussions about politics and policy, so that regular people actually influenced the government. Along with perestroika ("restructuring"), the policy of glasnost reduced the Community Party's power, and ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
29. THE 3D PRINTER (STEREOLITHOGRAPHY)
In 1986, Chuck Hull patented the first 3D printer. While it took decades to reach a price point accessible to consumers, the technology has been used to create physical prototypes since the mid-1980s.
The first item printed by Hull? A small "eye cup" used by optometrists.
30. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME
This is the funniest of the Star Trek films, and also the most '80s-tastic, in which Spock wears a white headband to disguise his Vulcan ears and nobody thinks that's odd; the crew time-travels to San Francisco to save the whales; and Scotty says "Hello, computer?" into a mouse. Directed by the late, great Leonard Nimoy.