Go Back in Time With This 1980s History Timeline

Visual timeline of the 1980s

ThoughtCo.

A lot happened during the 1980s—too much to remember, really. Go back in time and relive the era of Reagan and Rubik's Cubes with this 1980s timeline.

1980

Pac-Man 1980
Americans flocked to video arcades when Pac-Mac debuted in October 1980. It would become one of the most popular arcade games of the decade. Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

The first year of the decade was memorable for political drama, cable TV, and games we couldn't keep our hands off of.

Media tycoon Ted Turner announced the creation of CNN, the first 24-hour cable news network, on April 27. One day later, the U.S. made an abortive attempt to rescue American hostages being held in Iran. Historians say both would factor in Ronald Reagan's election as president later that year. 

Arcades were jammed with people playing a new video game called Pac-Man. Some of those early gamers might also be fiddling with a colorful nine-sided Rubik's Cube

The year was noteworthy for other events. In Washington state, Mount St. Helens erupted in May, killing more than 50 people. And in December, singer John Lennon was assassinated in New York.

Other highlights from 1980:

  • Feb. 22: The U.S. Olympic hockey team defeats the Soviet Union in the semifinals at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
  • May 21: "The Empire Strikes Back" premieres in movie theaters.
  • Oct. 21: The Philadelphia Phillies defeat the Kansas City Royals to win the World Series in six games.
  • Nov. 21: A record 350 million people worldwide watched TV's "Dallas" to find out who shot character J.R. Ewing.

1981

Princess Diana and Prince Charles sitting together in a carriage after their wedding.
England's Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in Westminster Cathedral in London on July 29, 1981, before a live TV audience of millions. Anwar Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images

President Ronald Reagan had been in office for fewer than 100 days when an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on his life. Reagan survived being shot and appointed Sandra Day O'Connor as the first female Supreme Court justice later that year. In Italy, Pope John Paul also survived an assassination attempt.

The whole world was watching as Britain's Prince Charles wed Diana Spencer in a royal wedding televised live. But few Americans were paying attention when the AIDS virus was first identified.

Our homes and offices were beginning to change. If you had cable TV you probably were watching MTV after it began broadcasting in August. And at work, typewriters began making way for something called a personal computer from IBM.

Other highlights from 1981:

  • Jan. 20: Iran releases the 52 U.S. hostages held in Tehran for 444 days.
  • April 12: The Space Shuttle Columbia is launched for the first time.
  • Oct. 6: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is assassinated in Cario.
  • Nov. 12: The Church of England votes to allow women to serve as priests.

1982

Michael Jackson accepts an award from CBS and The Guinness Book Of World Records celebrating 'Thriller' as the largest-selling album of all time (25 million) February 7, 1984 at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was released on Nov. 30, 1982, and has sold 33 million copies since. Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

The big news in 1982 literally was the news when USA Today, with its colorful graphics and short articles, made headlines as the first nationwide newspaper.

After months of tension, war erupted that spring between Argentina and Great Britain over the tiny Falkland Islands. That fall, the world remembered another conflict when the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated in November in Washington, D.C.

In the summertime, we lined up at the movies to watch "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," and in fall we danced to the sounds of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." And if that wasn't enough wonder, Walt Disney World opened Epcot Center in Florida.

Other highlights from 1982:

  • Jan. 7: The Commodore 64 personal computer is unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
  • April 2: The Falkland Islands War begins between Great Britain and Argentina.
  • May 1: The World's Fair begins in Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • Dec. 2: Barney Clark becomes the first person to have a permanent artificial heart implanted.

1983

Sally Ride
Sally Ride became the first American woman in outer space when the space shuttle Challenger was launched on June 19, 1983. Smith Collection/Gado/Contributor/Getty Images

The year started with a literal bang as Hawaii's Mt. Kilauea erupted on Jan. 3. A month later, more than 100 million Americans watched the final episode of "MASH," making it the most-watched TV episode ever.

Tragedy struck the skies that September when the Soviet Union shot down a Korean airliner, killing all aboard. Just a month later, a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, was blown up by terrorists, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans.

Sally Ride inspired young and old when she rode the space shuttle and became the first American woman in space. And kids went bananas that holiday season as Cabbage Patch Kids became the hottest gift around.

Other highlights from 1983:

  • Jan. 1: The Internet is born with the establishment of the TCP/IP standard for computer networks.
  • May 25: "Return of the Jedi" opens in theaters.
  • Oct. 25: U.S. troops invade the Caribbean island of Grenada.
  • Nov. 2: President Ronald Reagan signs legislation making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a federal holiday.

1984

Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, visiting Austria. Hotel Imperial in Vienna. (1983)
Indira Gandhi, India's first female prime minister, was assassinated on Oct. 31, 1984. Nora Schuster/Imagno/Getty Images

The world celebrated in 1984 in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, at the Winter Olympics, and again in Los Angeles at the Summer Olympics. 

India was the scene of two of the biggest news stories of the year. At the end of October, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by two of her bodyguards. That December, a poisonous gas leak at a chemical plant in Bhopal killed and injured tens of thousands. 

Michael Jackson thrilled us when he moonwalked for the first time at the MTV Music Awards, and there were more thrills as the first PG-13 movies were shown in theaters. 

Other highlights from 1984:

  • Jan. 1: AT&T, known as the Bell System, is broken up into a series of regional telephone companies, ending its monopoly.
  • June 4: Singer Bruce Springsteen releases his album "Born in the U.S.A."
  • Sept. 26: Great Britain agrees to hand over control of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
  • Nov. 6: President Ronald Reagan is elected to a second term, defeating Democrat Walter Mondale.

1985

Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of an official visit to London. (April 7, 1989)
Mikhail Gorbachev, shown here with British Prime Minister Maragret Thatcher, became leader of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985. He was the last. Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

In March, Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. That was notable in its own right, but his twin policies of glasnost and perestroika would forever transform global politics.

Some of the most popular singers in the U.S. had an international impact when they began recording "We Are the World," a hit single that raised millions to feed Africa's hungry.

We celebrated the discovery of the Titanic wreckage and mourned when TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by terrorists. At the movies, we lined up for "Back to the Future" and collectively said no to New Coke. 

Other highlights from 1985:

  • March 4: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the first blood test to detect the virus that causes AIDS.
  • June 23: Air India Flight 182 is destroyed by a terrorist bomb off the Irish coast. All 329 aboard are killed.
  • Oct. 18: The Nintendo Entertainment System debuts in the U.S.

1986

Hurtling out of the conflagration at 78 seconds are the Challenger's left wing, main engines (still burning residual propellant) and the forward fuselage (crew cabin). (Jan. 28, 1986)
Tragedy struck on Jan. 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing the seven crew members. Picture courtesy of the NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC).

Two events would grab the headlines in 1986. In January, the space shuttle Challenger exploded over Cape Canaveral, killing the astronauts aboard.

Three months later, the deadliest nuclear power plant accident to date occurred outside the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl. Radioactive material was scattered across Europe.

American politics was rocked by the Iran-Contra Affair, which kept the nation glued to their TVs. We began tuning in to watch a new national talk show called "The Oprah Winfrey Show," too. 

Everyone looked to the skies as Halley's Comet passed overhead in February for the first time since 1910, and the U.S.S.R. launched its Mir space station the same month. 

Other highlights from 1986:

  • Feb. 25: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos is forced into exile after 20 years in office.
  • March 14: Microsoft goes public with an initial public offering of shares on the New York Stock Exchange.
  • May 25: Hands Across America attempts to form a human chain from New York to California to raise money to fight hunger and homelessness.
  • Oct. 28: Following extensive renovations, the Statue of Liberty celebrates its centennial.

1987

Klaus Barbie on Trial
Nikolaus "Klaus" Barbie, a former Nazi official, was found guilty of crimes against humanity by a French court on July 4, 1987. Peter Turnley/Contributor/Getty Images

If you had money to invest on Wall Street, the new year began on a high note as the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke 2,000 for the first time. The good times would come crashing down in October when it lost a stunning 22 percent of its value in one day.

That May in France, one of the last chapters of World War II came to a close as Nikolaus "Klaus" Barbie, a notorious Nazi fugitive, was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

President Ronald Reagan made headlines when he traveled to Berlin in June and urged the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall. Earlier that spring, a young German named Mathias Rust also made headlines when he landed his small plane in Red Square in Moscow. 

Pop culture was popping as we listened to George Michael's "Faith," practiced our best "Dirty Dancing," and watched a new syndicated TV show called "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Other highlights from 1987:

  • Jan. 20: Terry Waite, a special envoy for the Anglican Church, is kidnapped in Beirut, Lebanon. He will be held until 1991.
  • March 9: U2 releases its "Joshua Tree" album.
  • July 15: Taiwan ends 38 years of martial law.
  • Aug. 17: Former Nazi Rudolf Hess commits suicide in his prison cell in Berlin.

1988

Pan Am Flight 103
A terrorist bomb destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988. All 259 passengers and crew were killed. Bryn Colton/Contributor/Getty Images

President Ronald Reagan made news in when he appointed Anthony Kennedy to the U.S. Supreme Court. Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, also made headlines in a presidential election that pitted him against Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Two major air disasters occurred in 1988. In July, all passengers on Iran Air Flight 655 were killed when the jet was shot down by a U.S. Navy ship. In Scotland that December, a terrorist's bomb brought down ​Pan Am Flight 103, killing all aboard. 

In the Middle East, the Iran-Iraq War came to an end after eight years and more than a million dead, giving much cause to hope for regional peace.

In New York City, "The Phantom of the Opera" opened; it would become the most successful play on Broadway until "The Lion King" dethroned it in 2014.

Other highlights from 1988:

  • May 15: Soviet Troops begin pulling out of Afghanistan after nine years of armed conflict.
  • July 3: The USS Vincennes shoots down Iranian Airlines Flight 655, killing all 290 aboard.
  • Aug. 11: Osama bin Laden forms Al Qaeda.
  • Dec. 1: The first annual World AIDS Day is held.

1989

West Berliner at the foot of the wall talks to East Berliner, November 1962.
On Nov 9, 1989, the East German government opened its borders, signaling the end of the Berlin Wall, hated symbol of the Cold War. NATO Handout/Getty Images

As the decade came to a close, it seemed like history itself was crumbling as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, transmitted live on TV worldwide. Communist governments across Eastern Europe would begin to fall as well. The U.S. was changing, too, as George H. W. Bush was inaugurated as president.

The world was watching as hundreds of Chinese students who had gathered peacefully to demonstrate in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were killed when the government quashed the protest. In the U.S., a massive oil spill tainted hundreds of miles of Alaskan coastline after the ​Exxon Valdez tanker ran ashore. 

Terrible as these events were, an innovation in 1989 would begin to unite the world in ways its inventors could not today imagine when Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist, invented the World Wide Web.

Other highlights from 1989:

  • Jan. 7: Japanese Emperor Hirohito dies, ending a 62-year reign.
  • Aug. 10: Gen Colin Powell is nominated to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, becoming the first African-American to hold that position.
  • Aug. 14: The Sega Genesis is released in the U.S.
  • Dec. 20: U.S. troops invade Panama in an attempt to oust leader Gen. Manuel Noriega.