It is one of the most popular toys ever produced, selling well over a quarter-billion copies. Virtually every American alive has played with one at some time or another. It is the Frisbee, and this is its story.
The US patent drawing for the Frisbee.
In 1871, a young man named William Russell Frisbie left his job in his father’s flour mill, and took a job as manager of a bakery in nearby Bridgeport CT. Within a few years, he had saved enough money to buy the bakery and run it himself, and he renamed it the Frisbie Pie Company. When William died in 1903, the Frisbie Pie Company continued under his son Joseph, and then under Joseph’s widow Marian. It grew from a single bakery into a group of three, with branches at Hartford CT, Poughkeepsie NY, and Providence RI.
One of the most loyal group of customers for the Frisbie Pie Company were the students at Yale University in New Haven. But the Ivy Leaguers had found a use for the bakery’s products that the bakers had never dreamed of: the company sold its pies and cookies in metal tins to protect them from getting squished, and sometime in the 1940’s the students at Yale discovered that if they took the metal pie pans or cookie tin lids and tossed them with a flat spin, they could be thrown with accuracy and distance. (According to some versions, it was the Frisbie Pie Company’s delivery truck drivers who discovered the aerodynamic properties of the pie tins by tossing them back and forth during their breaks–and were then copied by the college kids who saw them.) The past-time spread from Yale to other colleges in the northeast, and playing “catch” with the metal discs soon became known as “frisbie-ing”.
There things might have stayed, were it not for a returning World War Two veteran named Walter Frederick Morrison. Morrison had been a prisoner of war in a German Stalag, and when he returned to the US in 1948 he was working as a building inspector but wanted another career (his father had been the inventor of the modern automobile headlight). As a kid, Morrison had tossed around metal paint can lids and cake pans before becoming acquainted with the Frisbie pie pan, and now he decided to try his hand at toy-making with his own commercial version of the metal pie plate.
At first, Morrison tried to improve the metal disc by welding a flat ring around the rim to make it more stable by adding weight to the outside edge. It didn’t work: the metal disc was now too heavy, too hard to throw, and too likely to cause injury. So Morrison decided to try a new material that was just beginning to appear at the time–plastic–which was not only lighter and softer than metal, but also much cheaper and easier to work with. At first, the throwing disc was flat with six curved fins on top to help it spin, and was called the “Whirlo-way” It was made from a type of plastic called butyl stearate. But this proved to be too brittle and the fins broke off too easily. So Morrison switched to polyethylene, which was softer but sturdier.
In 1948, when Morrison finished tweaking his design and began production, the UFO and little green men craze had just begun, and Morrison called his new throwing disc the “Flyin’ Saucer”. He began selling the new toy on street corners in Los Angeles. But sadly, Morrison found that his skills as a salesman were not as great as his engineering ability, and the “Flyin’ Saucers” didn’t take off. So in 1951 Morrison made some modifications to make it fly better and give it more commercial appeal: the fins on the top were removed, replaced by a rounded cupola with molded window ports to make it look like a classic cartoon UFO. Most importantly, Morrison added a downward slope to the outside edge of the disc, which made it more stable. He called the new version “The Pluto Platter” and opened a small factory to manufacture the toy. But it still didn’t sell.
Enter Rich Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin. The two college grads from USC had just formed a toy company called Wham-O. Over the next few years, Wham-O would hit it big with the Hula Hoop and the Super Ball, but in 1955 Knerr and Melin were struggling to sell plastic slingshots. Their fortunes changed when they happened to pass Morrison selling his Pluto Platters on a street corner, and were smitten with the toy. Quickly making a deal, Wham-O bought the rights to the flying saucer disc, made a few tweaks to the design (one addition were the “Rings of Headrick”, a band of ridges around the middle named after their designer), and began production of the Pluto Platter in January 1957. Initial sales were weak.
Later that summer, however, Wham-O made another simple change–not to the disc, but to its name. They had finally heard some stories about the college students out east who had been tossing around pie pans for years, known as “frisbie-ing”. Knerr and Melin loved the name and adopted it for themselves–but because they had never seen a Frisbie pie pan, they didn’t know how to spell it. So they gave their flying disc toy the phonetic name “Frisbee”.
With that simple marketing change, helped with some TV advertising, the Frisbee climbed steadily in sales. But sales really skyrocketed in the mid 60’s, when the toy was adopted by counterculture youth and beachgoers across the US.
In 1968, Frisbee-dom took a further step when the school newspaper staff at Columbia High School in Maplewood NJ made up a game that they called “Ultimate Frisbee”, a mixture of Frisbee catch, basketball and football. Today Ultimate Frisbee is played in 32 countries, and there is talk of making it a future Olympic sport.
Then in 1976 a group of players in California developed “Frisbee Golf”. Today there is a professional league of Frisbee Golf players in the US.
And it all started with an empty pie plate.