10 Cultural Milestones Turning 30 In 2019

Three decades have passed, but these historic firsts and seminal moments still endure.

January 20, 2019 5:00 am
cultural moments
The first episode of The Simpsons aired on FOX on December 17, 1989

It’s hard to believe that Seinfeld first aired 30 years ago, just as the first pieces of the Berlin Wall were chipped away, and Nintendo created and released the first-ever Game Boy. Take a look back at some of the biggest cultural moments turning 30 in the coming year.

1. The Simpsons premieres on FOX

When: December 17, 1989

cultural moments
The first episode of The Simpsons aired on FOX on December 17, 1989 (FOX)

The Simpsons is America’s longest running sitcom. The dysfunctional but still lovable family of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie had first debuted on television on April 19, 1987 as an animated sketch that was part of  The Tracey Ullman Show. After three seasons, the sketch was developed into a full-length, half-hour prime time show that debuted mid-season in 1989. It soon became the fledgling Fox Network’s first hit show as The Simpsons broke into the top 30 ratings for shows airing during the 1989 to 1990 season. Currently, more than 650 episodes of The Simpsons have aired.

2. Berlin Wall comes down

When: November 9, 1989

cultural moments
Workers prepare the last wall segment for dismantling in the center of Berlin, Nov. 30, 1990. After dividing the city for 28 years, the wall began to be torn down in late 1989 as the Soviet Union’s control over the Eastern bloc collapsed. (AP Photo/Axel Kull)

The Berlin Wall stood for almost 30 years before folks began to chip away at it in the fall of 1989. Since its erection, more than 100,000 people had tried to escape to the West from East Germany, but only 5,000 made it. Between 130 and 200 people died trying to climb the wall. Both East and West Germany open the wall in November of 1989, and although folks immediately began to chip away at at the stone structure, it wasn’t until the following summer that the wall officially began to be demolished. By 1992, the demolition was complete.

3. Nintendo Game Boy is released

When: April 22, 1989 (Japan), July 31, 1989 (North America)

cultural moments
Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and other characters and video games for Nintendo, holds a Nintendo Game Boy containing the Super Mario World video game. (Getty Images)
Corbis via Getty Images

The Nintendo Switch has this original handheld gaming device to thank for its popularity. In 1989, way back before e-sports and Twitch, gamers got a taste of the future of gaming when Nintendo released their first-ever hand-held gaming device: the Game Boy. Before it was discontinued in 2003, the Game Boy sold over 118 million units and spawned the Game Boy Advance and Game Boy Pocket. 40,000 Game Boys were sold in the United States the day it came out. In Japan, Nintendo sold 300,000 consoles during the first two weeks on the market.

4. Disney’s The Little Mermaid released

When: November 17, 1989

cultural moments
Actress Jodi Benson, who is the voice of Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid,’ at Disney Studios in Burbank, California. The animated film, released in 1989, made over $200 million worldwide. (Photo by Bob Riha Jr/WireImage)

When Disney’s The Little Mermaid premiered in 1989, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney’s then CEO, said because it was a “girl’s movie,” don’t expect the mermaid film to make much or as much money as Oliver & Company. Boy was he wrong. The Little Mermaid first saw life at Disney as part of an animated collection of Hans Christian Andersen shorts created in the 1930s. After decades on the shelf, Disney revitalized the concept and brought it life. The underwater setting in the film required the most detailed special effects animation for a Disney movie since 1940’s Fantasia. The film went on to gross over $200 million worldwide (blowing Oliver & Company out of the mermaid-filled waters), spawning re-releases, sequels, and even a limited 3D version that played at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood in 2013. Disney is currently in production on a live-action version of the animated classic.

5. Seinfeld premieres on NBC

When: July 5, 1989

cultural moments
Season one of Seinfeld premiered in 1989. Pictured: (l-r) Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jerry Seinfeld as himself, Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Jason Alexander as George Costanza. (Photo by Carin Baer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NBC via Getty Images

After it premiered on NBC in 1989, Seinfeld went on to become one of the most acclaimed television shows in TV history, lauded by publications like Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and TV Guide. The show won three Golden Globes and 10 Emmy awards during its run. Its finale, at the end of its ninth season, attracted more than 38 millions viewers. In 2002, TV Guide called Seinfeld the greatest TV show of all time and it still commands millions of dollars in digital streaming fees. The show continues to live on through reruns and popular catchphrases created by the show like “Yada, yada, yada…” “No soup for you!” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

6. Execution of Ted Bundy

When: January 24, 1989

ted bundy cultural moments
Ted Bundy walks forward and waves to TV camera as his indictment for the January murders of FSU coeds Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman is read at the Leon County Jail. Bundy was later sentenced to death and executed on January 24, 1989. (Getty Images)
Bettmann Archive

Serial killer Ted Bundy admitted to brutally murdering 36 young women (though law enforcement officials believe he killed more than 100 people). He began taking lives sometime around 1974, perhaps even as early as 1971, and his murder spree spanned the U.S. including Washington, Utah, Oregon, Idaho, and Colorado. The world was stunned to learn that such a charismatic, good looking “all American” type guy could decapitate at least 12 women and sexually assault their lifeless bodies. After two escapes from custody, Bundy was sentenced to death in Florida and sent to the electric chair on January 24, 1989. After being cremated, the notorious mass murderer wanted his ashes spread on the Cascade Mountains of Washington State—that’s where he murdered at least four women.

7. First Global Positioning System (GPS) launched into orbit

When: February 14, 1989

cultural moments
An artist’s rendering of the first Block II satellite, launched into orbit on February 14, 1989. (NASA)

The first of 24 satellites designed to make up the Global Positioning System (GPS) was launched into orbit in 1989. Over the coming years, additional satellites were put into place at specific orbits and altitudes to ensure coverage around the globe. The system, still used today as the backbone to modern life, was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense and features applications in land-surveying, global timekeeping, and mapmaking.

8. Batman the film is released in theaters

When: June 23, 1989

Batman cultural moments
Michael Keaton as Batman in Tim Burton’s film adaption of the classic television series. The film grossed over $400 million worldwide. (IMDB)

Kids (and parents) went nuts during the summer of ’89 when Tim Burton’s Batman hit theaters. The $48 million big-budget film went on to gross over $400 million at the box office—that’s over $800 million in today’s dollars. The film was so popular it helped to launch the successful Batman: The Animated Series cartoon show. At the time, Batman was the fifth-highest-grossing movie in film history, paving the way for future DC Universe pictures. The all-star cast included Michael Keaton as Batman, Jack Nicholson as The Joker, and Hollywood It-Girl Kim Basinger. The popular score was created by Danny Elfman. Other A-listers who had a shot at being Batman but didn’t make the cut include Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford, and Charlie Sheen. Prior to the film’s release, over $750 million worth of Batman merchandise had already been sold. The film won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction and has spawned six more Batman sequels.

9. Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web

When: March 12, 1989

cultural moments
British physicist-turned-programmer Tim Berners-Lee devised much of the programming language that made the Internet accessible to the broad public. (Catrina Genovese/Getty Images)

Tim Berners-Lee was a CERN software engineer at the laboratory in Switzerland near Geneva in 1989 when he invented the World Wild Web. While working at the lab, Berners-Lee noticed that visiting scientists were having a difficult time sharing their findings with one another. Knowing that the super computers were connected via the Internet, the engineer figured he could exploit hypertext, an emerging tech in the field. In March of ’89 Berners-Lee created a new project, calling it “Information Management: A Proposal.” Mike Sendall, his boss at the time, called the proposal “vague but exciting.” By the fall of 1990, Berners-Lee had developed HTML, URI, and HTTP: three fundamental pieces of technology that are still used to build and deliver website today. In 1991, CERN opened up the World Wide Web to everyone.

10. Dalai Lama wins the Nobel Peace Prize

When: December 10, 1989

cultural moments
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama (left) receives the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize from Egil Aarvik, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, on December 10, 1989 at Oslo University. (AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

The 14th Dalai Lama, birth name Tenzin Gyatso, fled his home region of Tibet in 1959 after a deadly uprising against Chinese rule broke out. After landing in India, he set up a government-in-exile. Thirty years later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to honor the fact he “consistently has opposed the use of violence” in his campaign for Tibetan independence from China, the Committee said.

Informed of the award while in California, the Dalai Lama said he was thrilled to hear the news: ”I very much appreciate that kind of recognition about my beliefs,” he told the New York Times. ”In fact, I always believed in love, compassion and a sense of universal respect. Every human being has that potential. My case is nothing special. I am a simple Buddhist monk—no more, no less.”

The Dalai Lama had been nominated in previous years but in 1989 he beat out 100 other nominations to win the prestigious prize.

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