Flying disc toys have been thrown by people about as long as flat round objects existed. In the United States, two simultaneous “inventions” of the flying disc occurred on opposite ends of the country while a major tweaking of the disc design and a hearty dose of marketing set off the 1970’s Frisbee craze that lasted for nearly two decades.
Flying Discs can be Anything Round and Flat
For decades kids had played catch with items such as coffee can lids, paint can lids, and metal pie tins. Throwing metal pie pans in particular, grew in popularity during the Great Depression. “People were throwing paint can lids and paper plates and pie pans throughout history, since they were invented,” said Victor Malafronte, a Frisbee historian.
Throwing metal pie pans had its disadvantages though. The tins made a shrill noise and if you didn’t catch them just right, knuckles were busted. They became worn too and often developed sharp edges over time. Walter Frederick “Fred” Morrison came from a long line of innovators (his father was the inventor of the sealed beam headlight) and would soon play a major role in the advancement of the flying disc sport.
Fred Morrison begins Marketing the Flying Disc
In 1938 in Santa Monica, California, Morrison and his wife Lu often played with popcorn lids, throwing and catching them with each other in the back yard of their home and on the beaches of Santa Monica. Morrison recognized that the popcorn lids often dented, which affected their flight path, and that metal pie pans worked much better. He began purchasing metal pie pans solely for use as a flying disc. Morrison discovered a market for the metal pan flying disc in 1938 when he and his future wife Lucile were offered 25 cents for a pie pan that they were tossing back and forth to each other on the beach in Santa Monica, California. As Morrison recalled,
“That got the wheels turning, because you could buy a cake pan for 5 cents, and if people on the beach were willing to pay a quarter for it, well, there was a business.”
Morrison began selling the pie pans on the beaches of Santa Monica under the name “Flyin’ Cake Pans”.
Morrison Improves the Frisbee Design
Morrison went on to serve in World War II as a fighter pilot (and spent 48 days as a prisoner of war in Stalig 13, Germany’s infamous concentration camp). During his war service, he learnt the basics of aerodynamics. When he returned to the United States, he immediately sketched a design for an aerodynamically improved flying disc that would fly further with more accuracy. He also decided to cast the discs from plastic, a material proliferated by the wartime industry that would be lighter, quieter, and softer than the tradition metal that had been used to make fly discs. He dubbed the plastic flying disc “Whirlo-Way”.
By the end of 1948, after design modifications and experimentation with several different prototypes, Morrison partnered with investor Warrant Franscioni (also a war veteran) and began producing the first plastic flying discs. The used a lathe to carve their first discs out of Tenite, a hard plastic used in toothbrush handles and eyeglass frames. The Tenite disc flew well but tended to break and chip on impact with the ground. Through experimentation, they eventually figured out how to mold the disc using an injection molding method and a softer plastic. They re-named their invention Flyin-Saucer in the wake of reported UFO sightings. Morrison recalled,
“We worked fairs, demonstrating it. That’s where we learned we could sell these things, because people ate them up.”
Morrison and Franscioni named their newly formed company Partners in Plastic (Pipco). They contracted with Southern California Plastic Company in Glendale, California to manufacture Flyin’ Saucers for 25 cents each. They sold them for $1 through select retail outlets like Woolworth and Disneyland.
Morrison Introduces the Pluto Platter Flying Disc
Rather than contracting with Southern California Plastic Company, Morrison soon realized he could produce the plastic discs more cheaply on his own. Morrison and Franscioni, who had begun drifting away from the disk business anyway, ended their partnership in 1950 with Morrison moving on to form his own company, American Trends. After further design refinements in 1955, Morrison began producing a new plastic disc, which he called the Pluto Platter in an attempt to cash in on the growing popularity of UFOs with the American public. The Pluto Platter became the basic design for all modern day discs.
The Frisbie Pie Pans enthrall East Coast Students
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, college students were tossing around empty tin pie pans from the Frisbee Pie Company located near the Yale University campus. The Frisbie Baking Company (1871-1958) of Bridgeport, Connecticut, made pies that were sold to many New England colleges. Frisbie Baking Company owner William Russell Frisbie, bought pie plates that were made out of tin and had the name of the bakery embossed on the bottom. It is believed that truck drivers for the company were the first to toss Frisbie Pie tins on the loading docks during lunch breaks. The tins, bearing the words “Frisbie’s Pies” on the bottom, had six small holes in the center, in a star pattern, that hummed when the tin flew through the air.
College students also discovered that the empty pie tins could be tossed and caught, providing endless hours of game and sport on the campuses near the pie company. As students typically shouted “Frisbie!” to warn people of a thrown pie tins, the sport developed and took on the name “Frisbie-ing.”
Wham-O Purchases Pluto Platters
Rich Knerr and A.K. ‘Spud’ Melin were the owners of a new toy company, founded in 1948, called “Wham-O”. The company name came from their only product, a wooden slingshot, and the sound the pellets made when striking an object. Knerr and Melin were rapidly expanding their product lines and by 1955 were marketing the Hula-Hoop, the Super Ball and the Water Wiggle toys in addition to their original wooden slingshot. The Wham-O entrepreneurs first saw Morrison’s Pluto Platter flying disc in late 1955 in a parking lot. Convinced that the unique toy could be mass marketed, they convinced Morrison to sell them the rights to his fly disc design.
Morrison sold the rights to the injection molding machine that manufactured the discs to Wham-O on January 23, 1957 and accepted an agreement to collect royalties on sales of the Pluto Platter disc. Wham-O began manufacturing and selling the Pluto Platter almost immediately. Within months of the acquisition, Wham-O co-founder Richard Knerr decided to rename the disc to help generate new sales and began looking for a new, catchy name. Knerr was on the East Coast giving away free Pluto Platters when he noticed the East Coast college students tossing around metal pie pans from the Frisbie Pie Company. He noted how the students often shouted “Frisbie!” each time they threw the pie pan to their partner. The Frisbie Pie Company had just shuttered its operations so Wham-O quickly moved to obtain rights to the name. Playing it safe, Knerr changed the spelling of the flying disc to “Frisbee” in order to avoid any possible trademark infringement problems.
Steady Ed Headrick Improves the Frisbee Design and Ignites the Frisbee Craze
The man who was behind the Frisbee’s phenomenal success however was “Steady” Ed Headrick. Headrick was hired in 1964 as Wham-O’s new General Manager and Vice President in charge of marketing. Edward Early Headrick had been unemployed and looking for work. Wham-O toys was close to home but wasn’t hiring at the time. Ed made an offer to Wham-O to work for free for 3 months unconditionally. If he proved himself an asset to the company, Wham-O would back pay him for his three months of work and then hire him on permanently. Ed pitched his unique employment proposal to Wham-O who agreed to hire him and set him to work on his first task of his 3 month trial period, to increase sales for the flying disc toy called the Pluto Platter.
Ed found that the main problem with the Pluto Platter was that it was hard to control, was unstable and would flip over during flight, and was frustrating to anyone who wanted to actually throw at something or someone. Ed went about completely reworking and redesigning the Pluto Platter by adjusting the weight, rim height, shape, and diameter of the discs and changing the plastics used in manufacturing. The result of his efforts was a more controllable disc that could be thrown accurately.
Understanding that the shelf life for a new toy was often short, Headrick immediately set out create a sport for the toy in order to create long lasting demand for the flying disc. Headrick created the International Frisbee Association (IFA) as a governing body for the new sport and introduced the first “professional” Frisbee model. Sales for the Frisbee soared.
In 1977, 20 years after Wham-O began selling Frisbees, it generated up to 50 percent of the company’s annual sales. At the time, Wham-O estimated it had sold 100 million flying discs. Today the fifty year old Frisbee is owned by Mattel Toy Manufacturers, the world’s largest toy company (Mattel bought Wham-O in 1994). Mattel dates the Frisbee’s official birth date as 1957, when Wham-O first marketed Morrison’s Pluto Platter.