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History Factory Time Machine: 9 Game-Changers from 1979

April 17, 2019 • Michelle Moriarity Witt

As History Factory celebrates its 40th anniversary, we’re excited to take a look back at the year the authentic content revolution began: 1979.

While Bruce Weindruch and Tom West were waiting for the phone to ring in their cramped Old Town office, countless developments in corporate America and the world at large were changing the way we worked, played and lived. Join us in our time machine as we take a look at some of the game-changers that, like History Factory, were born in 1979.

ESPN

The idea of 24-hour programming of any type probably still seemed like science fiction for the average viewer back in 1979, but the ambitious father-and-son team of Bill and Scott Rasmussen made it a reality for sports fans. On September 7, they launched the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) with the debut episode of the now-iconic “SportsCenter,” along with coverage of a slow-pitch softball game and wrestling and soccer events. It might seem like a sluggish start by today’s standards, but major success was on its way. The big-name sponsors and pro sports partnerships that came in the 1980s catapulted ESPN to international prominence.

VisiCalc

Some of my colleagues probably couldn’t live without Microsoft Excel. Turns out, 1979 was the year that Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston helped make project managers’ number-crunching dreams come true with the invention of Excel’s forebear: VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for use on personal computers. VisiCalc automated the process of updating a ledger, enabling users to make a single change and have the effects of that change reflected instantly across fields. The software was an instant best-seller.

“Rapper’s Delight”

Rhythmic spoken-word performance has a long and multicultural history, but it wasn’t till 1979 that a rap single got the airplay it needed to become a Top 40 hit. Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” burst onto the FM airwaves in September 1979, an epic poem that fused playful lyrics with a funky bass line and a beat sampled from the disco hit “Good Times” by Chic. In addition to introducing rap to the mainstream, it marked one of the first uses of sampling in popular music.

“Rapper’s Delight” has continued to delight audiences in the decades since it first made music history. It is referenced, sampled and parodied widely on TV and in movies, perhaps most memorably in The Wedding Singer.

Sony Walkman

The world’s first portable music player enabled music lovers to listen to “Rapper’s Delight,” “My Sharona” or “Heart of Glass” anytime, anywhere. The new device used AA batteries and played cassette tapes, which became the format of choice for teenagers for the next decade (and served as the ideal format for the ultimate expression of teenage love: the mixtape). It sold for about $150, or nearly $523 in 2019 money.

The cassette tape eventually went extinct, but the demand for portability continued to grow. The Walkman was followed by the Discman, and a few decades later, the MP3 player. Joggers everywhere rejoiced.

FEMA

Since the early 19th century, the U.S. government had provided assistance following earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters. However, larger disasters drove the need for a more coordinated response. President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order on April 1, 1979, to create the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2003, FEMA became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, adding a new dimension to the government’s disaster preparedness needs: terrorism.

Roller Disco

The disco revolution itself came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the nightclubs of Paris and New York. Roller skating enjoyed a renaissance during baby boomers’ free-range childhoods. But somehow 1979 was the banner year for the much-maligned combination of the two.

Roller disco combined the best of both worlds: the glitz and glamour of nightclubs and the freewheeling joy of the roller rink. For a brief time, youths and adults alike couldn’t get enough of it. The combined pastime went full-tilt mainstream in 1979, with a veritable explosion of TV and movie representations: Skatetown U.S.A., Roller Boogie, “Charlie’s Angels” and “CHiPs,” to name a few. Roller disco probably wasn’t the same kind of game-changer as FEMA. But it was a welcome dose of levity and ephemera in a decade clouded by inflation, pollution and political mayhem.

Pritzker Prize

Pritzker laureate I.M. Pei designed a number of iconic buildings around the world, including the pyramid at the entrance of the Louvre in Paris, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.

The Pritzker Prize, established in 1979 by Hyatt Hotels founder Jay A. Pritzker, has been referred to as architecture’s Nobel Prize. It is awarded annually to a living architect “whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, who has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.” The first winner was Philip Johnson for his Glass House in New Canaan Connecticut. Other Pritzker laureates include I.M. Pei, Richard Meier and Frank Gehry.

Kramer vs. Kramer

In 1979, movie-goers flocked to the theater to see Alien, Rocky II and The Muppet Movie. But the top-grossing movie of the year? An understated drama, Kramer vs. Kramer, about the dissolution of a marriage and the custody battle that followed. The portrait of a nuclear family melting down grossed more than $100 million at the box office and snagged five Oscars. In a year filled with big-budget action and adventure movies—not to mention TV fare such as “Charlie’s Angels” and “Fantasy Island”—people responded enthusiastically to a movie that challenged assumptions about families, parenting and gender roles.

The McDonald’s Happy Meal

For elementary-aged Gen Xers, the Happy Meal was the holy grail: a perfect cardboard lunchbox filled with salty, sweet, tasty junk food. Early Happy Meals included a cheeseburger or plain hamburger, fries, a drink, dessert and a prize.

The idea for the Happy Meal originated in Guatemala in the mid-1970s, when a local franchise offered harried parents prix fixe meals for their kids. McDonald’s officials in the United States took notice and started developing their own version, which was patented in 1977. Two years later, the Happy Meal went mainstream, and that same year, the first licensed Happy Meal debuted alongside Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Suddenly, the Happy Meal wasn’t simply a gimmick. It was a collectible, and a triumph of commercialism that reinforced McDonald’s market domination for years to come. 

***

History Factory wasn’t conceived in a vacuum. We were, and are, a product of the times. Today, that means Brexit, 5G and Game of Thrones. In 1979, it meant the Iranian Revolution, the Three Mile Island accident and roller skates. Whatever the variables, we knew right off the bat that corporate history is unique: a combination of ideas and events, large and small, that come together in a time and place to create something new and exciting.

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