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Ten Shocking and Often-Forgotten Tales from the Crazy ’80s

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The 1980s were a crazy time, indeed. The decade saw the advent of a ton of wacky and futuristic clothing. Music hit a new level in the era, with songs that were tacky and strange mixed right in with things like hair metal and glam bands. Disco went out with a bang just before the decade began, and gangster rap became popular late in the decade and into the ’90s. But in between, the 1980s were a very strange amalgamation of half-fleshed-out trends, bizarre activities, and cultural touchstones.

But a lot more happened in that decade beyond big hair and neon fashions. The Cold War was at its height, the economy was fluctuating wildly, and the go-go years hurtled us forward into a major period of technological development—especially for personal items like stereos, computers, and the most primitive of cell phones. In this list, we’ll take a long look at some bizarre things that came out of the ’80s. This isn’t a basic look-back at the most famous and well-known trends, though. This is a deep dive into ten of the strangest things that popped up during one of the century’s strangest decades. Bodacious, bro!

Related: Top 10 Worst Characters from ’80s Movies

10 With Love, from Russia

Russian Woodpecker – The Radio Signal That Wreaked Havoc Around The World

For years during the late ’70s and throughout much of the ’80s, short-wave radio operators and ham radio aficionados kept hearing bizarre signals coming across on their radio bands. They took to calling it the “Russian Woodpecker” signal and assumed that it was an over-the-horizon radar system being employed by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Amazingly, they were right!

As it turned out, the signal was indeed coming from the Soviet Union—from Chernobyl, actually—and it was a rudimentary and very primitive tool that the Russians were using to try to get the jump on any possible American missiles going up in the sky. Basically, the “Russian Woodpecker” was a short-wave signal designed to catch interference if any intercontinental ballistic missiles were to be fired by the United States or any of their Western allies.

However, it was far from an effective radar system and would not be able to tell where the missile was launched from or where it was headed. But the idea was for the signal to be used to pick up echo-back reflection interference from missiles that were in the sky. The signal would bounce off that, alert its operators that something was amiss, and, ya know, kick off the beginnings of total nuclear annihilation. Or something. Thankfully, that never happened. Instead, the end result was simple: major frustration for short-wave radio operators but very little notice for all the rest of us![1]

9 Those Brutal Baby Walkers!

Are baby walkers safe? Are Baby Walkers Good? (The Answer will Surprise You!)

People had a ton of babies in the ’80s, and all those babies became the millennials you know and love (or hate) today. But back in that era, when those kids were all babies and barely able to walk—or not able to walk at all—they were pretty much all strapped into baby walkers!

As the name suggests, a baby walker is a device in which you can place an infant. The infant is held in by a harness and a swing-like strap around its legs and butt, so it can’t fall through the hole where its legs go. Then, the device has a round table-like plastic piece all around the baby. And it’s attached to wheels, so the baby can “walk” around the house and be on the move. You know, as much as a baby can be on the move.

Baby walkers were wildly popular beginning in the early 1980s. Then, films and sitcom television shows like Mr. Mom and Full House showed baby walkers being used on screen. That ramped up the popularity even more. Suddenly, it seemed like every single family in every town across the United States had a baby walker—even if they didn’t have a baby! (Okay, we’re kidding about that last part.)

There was just one problem with them: injuries. Doctors soon started reporting shockingly high numbers of fall-related injuries involving babies who got a little too carried away with their walkers and tumbled down the stairs. Ouch!![2]

8 Post-It Push!

Chance Discoveries: Post-it Notes

A man named Spencer Silver first invented the Post-it Note all the way back in 1968. At the time, he was experimenting with various adhesives for the 3M Corporation up at their headquarters in Minnesota. Unfortunately for him, the solutions that he came up with were either too sticky to be pulled off of a spot without leaving a residue or not sticky enough to stay attached to a paper or an item without falling off. He was looking for that just right “Goldilocks”-style stickiness. And one day, he found it!

But then, more bad luck. For more than a decade afterward, the higher-ups at 3M weren’t down with the solution Silver had come up with. Between 1968 and 1980, despite all his best efforts, they dragged their feet at releasing his new adhesive “sticky notes.”

Then, on April 6, 1980, it all changed. A leadership change at 3M brought in new executives who finally (and rightly) realized that Silver’s sticky notes could revolutionize how business got done. (Well, you know, in the pre-Internet age.) That year, they went all out in launching what they called “Post-it Notes” to the world.

Beginning in early April 1980 and continuing until, well, right up until the modern age, Post-iIt Notes have become a staple in nearly every office environment. Throughout the 1980s, their popularity landed them everywhere, it seemed. Silver was an overnight success—more than 12 years in the making! Still, despite being invented in the late 1960s, sticky notes as we know them today actually became an ’80s thing.[3]

7 Makin’ Maxi Singles

The $1.2 Billion Vinyl Industry’s Rise, Fall and Rebirth, Explained | WSJ

Vinyl records were far more common in the 1960s and 1970s than they were in the 1980s. By the time the ’80s rolled around, vinyl was pretty much on its way out, and cassette tapes (and soon-to-be CD players!) were rolling in quickly. Soon, those new technologies would take over the world from the old stuff, and old-school records would be seen as a thing of the past.

However, a new (old) trend took over in the ’80s, too. A bit of a throwback to the glory days of the ’60s, you might say! In this trend, “maxi single” vinyl records were pushed out by famous pop and rock artists. These were vinyl records, just like the old-school stuff, but the contents were a little bit different.

See, while artists and record companies were trying to get most fans to buy new music on cassette tapes and stick them in cassette players, they soon realized they could also capitalize on the fact that a lot of people had old vinyl-ready record players at home, too. So artists like Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and many more started releasing singles on 12-inch (30-centimeter) vinyl records, which they called maxi singles.

Also, they were very often re-mixes or altered versions of hit songs. Instead of being the normal song that everybody heard on radio play, they were totally unique. Plus, the pressings were very, very limited, so they were collector’s items nearly from the start. And the public loved them! They became a must-have for major music fans even as vinyl (supposedly) went the day of the dodo bird.[4]

6 Tetris’s Slow Burn

How Tetris Became The Addictive Classic It Is Today (HBO)

Russian computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov first invented Tetris all the way back in 1984. At the time, he was working in Moscow on a top-secret program for the Soviet government. They were building computers (or trying to, at least), and they wanted Pajitnov to create a powerful computing device.

So he built out a very simple game on the computer, which later became known as Tetris. His intention was to test it out to see if the computer could handle simple commands and work in short order alongside a user who was thinking and reacting quickly. The game worked—at least as well as it could have for 1984—and then Pajitnov promptly went on to other projects.

Five years later, in 1989, Nintendo creators bundled Tetris with a bunch of other games within their groundbreaking Game Boy system. The game proved to be a massive hit almost immediately. Americans and other people all around the world played the block-moving and wall-shaping game and became just as quickly addicted to it as Pajitnov had years before.

Interestingly, Pajitnov had to wait until Nintendo’s first Game Boy intellectual property deal expired years later before he was ever granted a share of the Tetris royalties. But it was very firmly an early ’80s invention—even if it didn’t hit the mainstream until years later![5]

5 Hailing Heart Health

A Change of Heart | Retro Report

The 1980s, like many decades in the 20th century, were a time for major medical advancements. Specifically, the ’80s saw the first-ever artificial heart transplant. That event was momentous in that it totally changed the way scientists and heart surgeons recognized medical developments. Specifically, cardiologists and surgeons were buoyed by the fact that a human could survive for a significant amount of time with an artificial heart. Knowing that, they pondered what might come from the procedure and how the world could be changed and improved in various ways.

The procedure itself occurred on December 2, 1982, at a hospital at the University of Utah. There, Dr. William DeVries implanted the first-ever artificial heart—a Jarvik 7 model, to be exact—into the chest cavity of patient Barney Clark. A dentist from Seattle, Clark had major heart problems and knew he wasn’t long for the world. So, instead of going out and fading away, he wanted to at least contribute his body to science before his death. He did just that—and the heart transplant worked amazingly well. For the next 112 days, Clark survived with the artificial heart.

He passed away after that long three-plus-month period, but the fact that he survived as long as he did was a boon to medical professionals everywhere. Doctors from all over the world descended to study the procedure and learn more about the implant. The artificial heart would go on to be perfected from there and be able to be used in countless other patients. All thanks to Dr. DeVries’s talents and Clark’s foresight to lend his life to science before his death![6]

4 The Smiley Face’s Start

The History of Emoticons and Emoji

The smiley face emoticon dates all the way back to 1982. A professor of computer science and a researcher in the early days of the field named Scott Fahlman was typing on a primitive online message board as part of his work at Carnegie Mellon University. During his time communicating on that internet of the early days, he happened upon a trio of characters that he could type out in a certain order and bring back a smiley face—if you turned your head to the side to see them as they were meant to be seen. And you probably already know where this is going, especially if you’ve been using the internet for a long time. Fahlman typed out “:-)”—and history was made!

Years later, Fahlman still sits back, amazed at the impact his then-thoughtless emoticon creation would have on the world. “It has been fascinating to watch this phenomenon grow from a little message I tossed off in ten minutes to something that has spread all around the world,” he said decades after emoticons and emojis took off. “Wherever the Internet has become a part of people’s daily lives, the smiley has followed. I sometimes wonder how many millions of people have typed these characters and how many have turned their heads to one side to view a smiley in the 25 years since this all started.” And with new-wave emojis on smartphones now, the wave is only continuing to crest![7]

3 Don’t Press Your Luck!

He EXPLOITED a Loophole to Win Press Your Luck But He Ultimately Lost Everything

In 1984, a man from the city of Lebanon, Ohio, went on a CBS-aired game show called Press Your Luck. The man’s name was Michael Larson, and he was a show superfan—even if the producers and television executives at the network weren’t aware of it. In fact, Larson had been methodically memorizing the patterns in the Press Your Luck board.

Amazingly, he’d memorized the game board, how the lights moved and flashed, and when to press the right spot on the board to win big money. And win big money, he did. During his run on the game show, Larson won a then-unheard-of $110,237 (about $325,000 in today’s dollars). By quietly and subtly memorizing the patterns on the game board, he walked away with a massive amount of money—and no Whammies! You can even watch the episode.

And then… he lost it. Larson used most of his money to pay off back taxes. He also invested much of the rest of it in bad real estate deals. Amazingly, within two years of the show’s infamous taping, all of Larson’s wild gains were lost again. Eventually, he fled the state of Ohio while being investigated for fraud.

Years later, he was found to be living in Florida. There, he died in 1999 from the effects of throat cancer. Multiple documentaries have since been released about Larson’s shocking Press Your Luck success—as well as his incredibly fast fall from financial grace after beating the game show so handily.[8]

2 Got Ayds?

AYDS – The Weight Loss Product You Might Remember?

Ayds was a diet fad that was first created as far back as the late 1930s. It was big in the ’40s, then got in trouble with the feds for making supposedly bogus claims about the amount of weight you could lose while taking the pills. The brand changed hands a couple times over the years, with various companies trying their luck at marketing the weight loss pills to women seeking to shed a few extra pounds.

Eventually, by the 1970s, it transitioned into becoming known more as an appetite suppressant candy than anything else. In 1981, Purex (which then owned the brand) sold Ayds to a company called Jeffrey Martin, Inc. There was just one problem with the sale. The folks behind Jeffrey Martin were going to go hard through the go-go ’80s in marketing the appetite-suppressant candy to all types of yuppies with disposable income.

But simultaneously, AIDS was quickly coming into the public consciousness. Famous people were starting to die of complications related to HIV, and AIDS was fast sweeping into the world as a major public health crisis. Jeffrey Martin was hamstrung by it, having been saddled with the worst possible brand name at the worst possible time. They sold the brand and a few others to the DEP Corporation at the end of the decade for pennies on the dollar, but the damage was done. Ayds was never meant to be. Sadly, AIDS very much was.[9]

1 New Coke Controversy

New Coke – A Complete Disaster?

Coca-Cola was absolutely everywhere across the United States for decades—right up until about the 1980s, that is. During that decade, Pepsi-Cola surged supreme, and it quickly caught Coca-Cola’s market dominance in the soda segment. In addition to that, consumers were searching for new beverages to drink in a bid to be more health conscious instead of consuming soda all day long.

Diet sodas, seltzers, flavored waters, tea-based beverages, citrus-flavored items, and more were quickly gaining market share. Between this and the sudden surge in Pepsi’s popularity, Coca-Cola was in big trouble. So, in 1985, they put out the formula for “New Coke,” and it was… a disaster.

The taste of New Coke was totally different from what Coca-Cola had been before that. People hated the change, and immediately, sales of Coca-Cola plummeted even faster than what had already been going on. The folks behind the Coca-Cola brand panicked, and rightfully so. Not only were they losing ground to Pepsi, but now they had a new flavor of their drink that nobody at all seemed to like. Stricken executives quickly pivoted, though. They ditched New Coke for the old Coca-Cola formula and announced they were bringing back the good stuff.

It worked like a charm. It worked so well, in fact, that for years afterward, a conspiracy theory popped up: Did the Coca-Cola folks simply push out “New Coke” as a craven and deeply cynical marketing ploy? That is, they knew it would fail, but they pushed it anyway, and their intention all along was to bring back the old flavor in a marketing push?

That’s not true at all—Coca-Cola really did horribly misread their market with New Coke—but their return to the classic formula worked so unbelievably well for their sales that it made the world wonder whether there wasn’t something fishy going on for the entire rest of the ’80s…[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen