1986 was a very eventful year, with so many big events from all over the world making the headlines. This 1986 timeline takes you through all the important 1986 events, from changes in politics to Nobel Prizes and much more. With sanctions posed against South Africa due to Apartheid, and the Iran-Contra affair becoming public, there are so many 1986 events to remember. 

You can read about these events and more for yourself in a 1986 newspaper, showing reports on these events just after they happened and discover how the public read about these crucial moments at the time. 

One of the biggest events of 1986 was the Chernobyl power plant disaster in Europe, with a reactor exploding on April 26th, releasing radioactive material across the whole of Europe and making the nearby town of Pripyat uninhabitable. To this day, this remains the worst nuclear accident in the whole of human history. Another big event of the year was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, with the shuttle disintegrating shortly after liftoff and killing all seven astronauts on board.

1986 Timeline 

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January 1: Aruba becomes independent from its neighbour island Curacao.

January 7: U.S. President Ronald Reagan announces economic sanctions against Libya.

January 9: After losing a patent battle with Polaroid, Kodak must give up its instant camera business.

January 11: In the U.S., Douglas Wilder is sworn in as the first African American Lieutenant Governor since Reconstruction.

January 20: The first U.S. federal holiday honouring Martin Luther King Jr. takes place.

January 23: The first group of musicians are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This included Elvis Presley, James Brown, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

January 24: The 43rd Golden Globes takes place, with Out of Africa winning Best Film, as well as actress Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple) winning Best Performance in a Motion Picture along with Jon Voight (Runaway Train).

January 26: Hein Vergeer becomes the European skating champion. 

January 27: The 13th Annual American Music Awards take place, with Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and Chicago all winning awards in the Pop/Rock category.

January 28: One of the biggest events that happened in 1986 – Space Shuttle Challenger explodes 73 seconds after it lifted off from Cape Canaveral. All 7 crew members were killed, including Christa McAuliffe who was going to be the first teacher in space.

January 31: Mary Lund from Minneapolis becomes the first female recipient of an artificial heart when she receives a donor heart.

1986 events

Christa McAuliffe, an American teacher who was one of the seven killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
Image: Wikipedia

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February 2: The Dalai Lama meets Pope John Paul II in India. 

February 3: U.S. President Ronald Reagan announces the formation of commission of inquiry on the Challenger accident. 

February 3: Mother Teresa and the Pope meet in Calcutta.

February 7: The U.S. female figure skating championship is won by Debi Thomas.

February 8: The U.S. male figure skating championship is won by Brian Boitano. 

February 8: The crime film A Better Tomorrow, starring Yun Fat Chow, premieres in Hong Kong. 

February 9: Halley’s Comet reaches the 30th perihelion, which is the closest approach to the sun.

February 9: The tomb of Tutankhamun’s treasurer Maya is found in Egypt. 

February 10: The album John Lennon: Live in NYC is released posthumously. 

February 11: Activist Anatoly Scharansky is released by the USSR and leaves the country. 

February 14: The 36th Berlin International Film Festival takes place, with Stammheim winning the Golden Bear. 

February 15: The largest NBA crowd to date gathers to watch Philadelphia at Detroit. 

February 15: Ferdinand Marcos wins a rigged presidential election in the Philippines, and the Philippines National Assembly authorises him 6 more years.

February 16: Mário Soares, from the Socialist Party, is elected the first civilian President of Portugal. 

February 18: The first anti-smoking ad appears on TV, featuring actor Yul Brynner who died of smoking-induced lung cancer on October 10, 1985. 

February 19: The U.S. Senate ratifies the UN’s ant-genocide convention 37 years later.

February 20: Heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson sexually harasses a woman in Albany, New York. 

February 21: AIDS patient Ryan White returns to classes at Western Middle School. 

February 25: The 28th Grammy Awards takes place, with We Are The World winning Record of the Year and Song of the Year, and Sade winning Best New Artist.

February 27: The Senate allows its debates to be televised on a trial basis. 

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March 2: Protesters try and stop the Land Rover motor company being sold to the U.S. 

March 5: The Today tabloid newspaper is launched in Britain as the first national colour newspaper. Publication continues until 1995. 

March 6: Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor premieres in London. 

March 8: Four French TV crew members are abducted in West Beirut, Lebanon. 

March 8: Martina Navratilova becomes the first tennis player to earn $10 million.

March 8: The Young Ones and Cliff Richard release a new version of the single Living Doll for Comic Relief. 

March 9: NASA announces that searchers have found the remains of Challenger astronauts.

March 11: This day marks one million days since the foundation of Rome on April 21, 753 BC.

March 13: The 12th People’s Choice Awards takes place, with Bill Crosby, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Meryl Streep all winning awards.

March 13: Microsoft has its first initial public offering. 

March 15: Funeral services are held for the assassinated Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme. He was the first national leader of Sweden to be assassinated since Gustav III in 1792.

March 20: Jacques Chirac forms the French government. 

March 20: New York City passes its first lesbian and gay rights legislation. 

March 21: In the U.S., the Pittsburgh Associates buy the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team for $218 million.

March 24: The Men’s International Professional Tennis Council announces Jimmy Connors’ 10 week suspension and $20,000 fine for storming off the court after defaulting against Ivan Lendl at Boca Raton, Florida in February.

March 24: The 58th Academy Awards takes place, with the film Out of Africa winning Best Picture. 

March 26: Geffen Records signs the band Guns & Roses. 

March 31: Mexicana Airlines Boeing 727 crashes, killing 167 people. 

March 31: Hampton Court in England is damaged badly by fire, killing one person. 

March 31: Six metropolitan county councils are abolished in England. 

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April 5: A U.S. soldier and a Turkish woman are killed in West Berlin disco bombing. 

April 8: Clint Eastwood is elected mayor of Carmel, California. 

April 11: Dodge Morgan sailed solo nonstop around the world for 150 days. 

April 11: Halley’s Comet makes its closest approach to Earth (39 million miles).

April 12: 20,000 mine workers protest the closing of the Hasselt Belgium mines.

April 14: Desmond Tutu is elected the Anglican Archbishop of Capetown.

April 14: A double-decker ferry sinks in stormy weather in Bangladesh, leaving 200 dead. 

April 14: U.S. aircraft attacks 5 terrorist locations in Libya. 

April 20: Michael Jordan sets NBA playoff record with 63 points in a game. 

April 21: Geraldo Rivera opens Al Capone’s vault on TV and finds nothing. 

April 26: Undoubtedly one of the most famous events in 1986 and the world’s worst nuclear disaster – the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explodes, immediately killing 31 people and with radio contamination reaching the rest of Europe. 

April 27: Soviet authorities order the evacuation of the city of Pripyat (population of 50,000) one day following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

April 29: 800,000 books are destroyed by fire in Los Angeles Central Library. 

April 30: Ashrita Furman performed 8,341 somersaults over 12 miles.

1986 timeline

 Reactor 4, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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May 1: Bill Elliot sets the stock car speed record of 212.23 mph. 

May 1: The Russian news agency Tass reports the Chernobyl nuclear power plant mishap.

May 1: Will Stegers’ expedition reaches the North Pole. 

May 3: NASA launches Goes-G but it fails to achieve orbit. 

May 9: Tenzing Norgay, the Tibetan climber who was the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953, dies of a cerebral haemorrhage at 71. 

May 12: President Ronald Reagan appoints Dr. James C. Fletcher as NASA Administrator. 

May 14: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation publishes Anne Frank’s complete diary. 

May 16: The film Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott and starring Tom Cruise, premieres.

May 18: David Goch finishes swimming 55,682 miles in a 25-yard pool. 

May 19: Some of the biggest 1986 events include reactions to Apartheid in South Africa. Anti-apartheid activist Héléne Pastoors is sentenced to 10 years in prison in South Africa. 

May 23: The U.S. and Western Europe veto heavier sanctions against South Africa. 

May 24: Margaret Thatcher becomes the first British Prime Minister to visit Israel. 

May 25: The charity event Hands Across America takes place, with 6.5 million people holding hands from California to New York. 

May 30: Barry Bonds makes his MLB debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

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June 1: Danielle Steel publishes her romance novel Wanderlust. 

June 2: Regular TV coverage of U.S. Senate sessions begins. 

June 3: 53 are killed during battles in Beirut. 

June 10: The 3-year-old State of Emergency in South Africa is renewed for another twelve months, which is followed by an organised campaign of civil disobedience reacting to it. 

June 13: U.S. President Ronald Reagan criticises the South African State of Emergency. 

June 15: Pravda announces that high-level Chernobyl staff have been fired for stupidity. 

June 16: A one-day general strike takes place in South Africa. 

June 18: The U.S. House of Representatives approves a bill to impose stricter sanctions on South Africa.

June 21: U.S. President Ronald Reagan gives a speech to defend his judicial appointments. 

June 24: Guy Hunt is elected as the first Republican governor of Alabama in 112 years. 

June 27: Zwelakhe Sisulu, South African journalist and founder of the New Nation newspaper, is abducted. He would not be released until 721 days later on December 2, 1988. 

June 29: The FIFA World Cup final takes place in Mexico City, with Argentina beating West Germany 3-2 in front of a crowd of 114,600. 

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July 2: A general strike in Chile takes place against Chilean president Augusto Pinochet. 

July 5: U.S. First Lady Nancy Reagan cuts a red, white and blue ribbon to reopen the Statue of Liberty after its refurbishment. 

July 7: It is reported that Boy George is having treatment for a heroin addiction.

July 7: Dmitri Polyakov, Soviet General and spy for the United States, is arrested in retirement in Russia. He is executed in 1988. 

July 14: 10 people are killed and 60 are injured in an ETA-bomb attack in Madrid. 

July 14: Paul McCartney releases Press. 

July 18: Video tapes are released which show the Titanic’s sunken remains. 

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August 2: Saddam Hussein offers peace in an open letter to Iran. 

August 3: The first NFL American Bowl exhibition game takes place in London at Wembley Stadium, in which the Chicago Bears defeat the Dallas Cowboys 17-6.

August 5: The U.S. Senate votes for the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as Star Wars. 

August 11: American tennis player Chuck McKinley dies of a brain tumour at the age of 45.

August 15: U.S. President Ronald Reagan decides to support a replacement for Challenger. 

August 16: Madonna’s album True Blue goes to number 1 for 5 weeks. 

August 21: Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is born. 

August 22: The film Stand By Me, based on the novella by Stephen King, is released. 

August 28: Tina Turner’s star is unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

August 31: A Russian cargo ship crashes into a cruise ship, killing 398 people. 

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September 1: Jerry Lewis’ 21st Muscular Dystrophy telethon raises $34,096,733.

September 1: Paul McCartney’s album Press to Play is released.

September 4: American Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg dies of cancer at the age of 75.

September 7: A failed assassination attempt on Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, leaves 5 people dead.

September 7: The Cleveland Browns becomes the first team in NFL history to have their play reviewed by instant replay. 

September 7: NFL player Dan Marino throws his 100th career touchdown pass, the fastest quarterback in NFL history to do so. 

September 8: The Oprah Winfrey Show is broadcast for the first time nationally. 

September 12: U.S. professor Joseph Cicippio is kidnapped and held hostage in Beirut, Lebanon. 

September 12: Blue Velvet, directed by David Lynch, debuts in Toronto. 

September 16: A fire at Kinross Gold Mine in Transvaal, South Africa kills 177 people.

September 19: Captain EO with Michael Jackson premieres. 

September 19: U.S. Federal health officials claim that AZT will be available to AIDS patients. 

September 22: 35 countries sign a disarmament accord in Stockholm, Sweden.

September 23: Congress selects the rose to be the United States’ national flower. 

September 26: RUN-DMC is the first rap group to hit the top 10 with Raising Hell. 

September 27: The single Give Me Wings is released by Michael Jackson, later becoming Billboard Song of the Year 1987. 

September 30: The man who revealed details of Israel covert program to British media, Mordechai Vanunu, is kidnapped in Rome, Italy.

1986 events

Augusto Pinochet, Chilean dictator
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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October 1: U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s presidential library/museum is dedicated. 

October 1: Robert Munsch, Canadian children’s author, publishes the book Love You Forever. 

October 2: Sikhs attempt to assassinate the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. 

October 5: The London Sunday Times reports Israel is stocking nuclear arms.

October 7: The first issue of the British newspaper the Independent is printed. 

October 8: Rap group RUN-DMC call for a day of peace among Los Angeles street gangs.

October 9: Phantom of the Opera, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, premieres in London. 

October 9: The U.S. Senate convicted U.S. District Judge Harry E. Claiborne, making him the fifth federal official to be removed from office through impeachment. 

October 9: The Late Show with Joan Rivers premieres on Fox, making Rivers the first woman to host a U.S. late-night television talk show. 

October 10: A 7.5 earthquake strikes San Salvador, El Salvador. 

October 10: Shimon Peres, Prime Minister of Israel, resigns. 

October 11: U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev open talks at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. 

October 12: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visit the People’s Republic of China. 

October 14: Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to ensure the Holocaust is remembered.

October 16: The U.S. government shuts down due to disputes between President Reagan and the House. 

October 16: Nigerian playwright and poet, Wole Soyinka, becomes the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. 

October 17: Yitzhak Rabin forms the Israeli government. 

October 23: Artist Keith Haring is commissioned to paint a mural on the Berlin Wall by Checkpoint Charlie Museum 300m long. 

October 24: Great Britain drops diplomatic relations with Syria. 

October 28: The centennial of the Statue of Liberty’s dedication is celebrated in New York Harbour. 

October 29: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opens the final stretch of the M25, London’s orbital motorway. At the time, it was the world’s longest ring road at 117 miles.

1986 timeline

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor who won the Nobel Peace Prize
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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November 3: John Lennon’s Menlove Avenue album is posthumously released.

November 6: U.S. President Ronald Reagan signs a landmark immigration reform bill. 

November 13: NASA launches space vehicle S-199.

November 13: U.S. President Ronald Reagan confesses to weapon sales to Iran. 

November 15: Beastie Boys release their debut album Licensed to III, becoming the first number 1 rap album on the Billboard charts.

November 20: The World Health Organisation announces the first global effort to combat AIDS.

November 22: Mike Tyson, at 20 years old, becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in history when he stops Trevor Berbick in the second round to earn the WBC title at the Las Vegas Tilton. 

November 25: The Iran-Contra affair erupts, with U.S. President Ronald Reagan revealing secret arms deal. 

November 28: For the first time, the U.S. Reagan administration exceeds the SALT II arms limitations. 

November 29: British-born American actor Cary Grant dies at the age of 82 from a cerebral haemorrhage.

November 30: American-based Czech tennis player Ivan Lendl is the first player to make over $10 million in career earnings.

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December 7: Haiti’s president, Jean-Claude Duvalier, flees the country. 

December 10: Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, accepts his Nobel Peace Prize.

December 12: A Russian Tupolev-134 crashes in East Berlin, killing 70 people.

December 14: Voyager, piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, took off from Edwards AFB in California on the first non-stop, unrefueled flight around the world.

December 15: Director of the CIA, William J. Casey, suffers a cerebral seizure.

December 15: After a $50 million facelift, Carnegie Hall reopens.

December 16: A revolt takes place in Kazakhstan against the Communist Party, named Zheltoskan, becoming the first sign of ethnic strife during the tenure of Gorbachev. 

December 17: The U.S. Congress forms the Irangate committee. 

December 17: Making medical history, Mrs. Davina Thompson has the first heart, lung and liver transplant at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England. 

December 17: Richard Kuklinkski, American mafia hitman, is arrested at a roadblock. 

December 19: Dissident Andrei Sakharov is freed by the USSR from internal exile. 

December 19: The film Platoon, directed by Oliver Stone, is released. It would later win the 1987 Academy Award for Best Picture. 

December 16: Doug Jarvis, at age 31, sets the NHL record of 916 consecutive games.

December 26: NHL legend Mark Messier is suspended for 10 games for instigating a fight with Jamie Macoun and breaking his cheekbone. 

December 29: British conservative politician and previous Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, dies at the age of 92. 

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Explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Soviet Union on April 26 1986 was the worst nuclear power disaster in human history. The Chernobyl power plant was based at the Pripyat settlement, 10 miles from the city of Chernobyl. It made awareness of the dangers of radioactivity as well as the design flaws and unsafe procedures in Soviet reactors.

The explosion occurred when technicians working on Reactor 4 attempted a poorly designed experiment. After a few mistakes, the chain reaction in the core of the reactor blew off the heavy steel and concrete lid of the reactor, releasing huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The day after the explosion, the 30,000 citizens of Pripyat began to be evacuated. 

The amount of radioactivity released was several times more than that created by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The wind spread the radioactivity across much of Europe, contaminating land and animals, making this disaster so devastating. The accurate number of people killed due to the explosion is unknown, especially since the radiation caused radiation-related illnesses in thousands of people. Scientists have estimated that the ‘exclusion zone’ around Chernobyl, where people were evacuated, will not be habitable for up to 20,000 years.

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Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle orbiter Challenger, shortly after its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The shuttle mission 51-L was intending to launch the second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B). It was also taking the Spartan Halley spacecraft, which was a small satellite to be released by Challenger, then collected again two days later after observing Halley’s Comet in the midst of its closest approach to the sun. 

There was trouble at the outset for the mission, with the launch being postponed for several days. When the eventual launch day came, liftoff was delayed until 11:38am, at which time everything appeared to be normal. However, this was not the case after the vehicle emerged from “Max-Q”, the period of greatest aerodynamic pressure. Only seconds later, the shuttle disappeared in an explosion just 73 seconds after liftoff at an altitude of 14,000 metres (46,000 feet). After the explosion, debris fell into the Atlantic Ocean for more than an hour, but searchers claimed there was no sign of the crew.

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Hands Across America

Hands Across America was a public event that took place across the United States. Held on May 25 1986, approximately 6.5 million people held hands for 15 minutes in an (ostensible) attempt to create a continuous human hand chain across the United States, from California to New York. 

The event aimed to raise money for poverty and hunger by uniting millions of Americans in a single cause. Participants had to pay $10 to take part and t-shirts and other merchandise were made for the event. The actual amount of money made is uncertain, but it was much less than the event had originally anticipated. It drew celebrity participation, including Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld and former president Ronald Reagan. 

Despite not reaching its goals, the event did become a part of pop culture, including being featured in Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film, Us. 

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