It’s often said that the best ideas are the simplest. Such is the case with the perennially popular Frisbee. It’s obvious that the fundamental idea of the flying disc toy had existed in the culture for centuries; after all, the discus throw was an event in the ancient Greek pentathlon. But the notion of a lightweight, widely-marketed circular throwing toy didn’t land until the 20th century, and even then it would take some unexpected turns. Here’s how it went from popcorn lid to a ubiquitous beach and college campus feature.
It starts with Thanksgiving dinner in 1937. Walter Frederick Morrison and his girlfriend (later wife) Lucille started a game of catch with a metal lid from a popcorn container. The pair had a good time with it, but discovered that the popcorn tin lids were easy to dent, and subsequently, no longer great for flying. They started using cake pans to play; they were easier to find, and cheap to buy. Fred and Lucille would even take the pans on outings to public places so they could play. One such outing was to a beach in Santa Monica, California. People watched as they played, and someone even offered the duo a quarter for their cake pan so they could play. Morrison knew an opportunity when he heard it; at that time, cake pans themselves only cost five cents. It stood to reason that there might be a commercial market for a flying disc toy. Dubbed the Flying Cake Pan — yes, Flying Cake Pan — they began to sell them for a quarter a piece at L.A. beaches.
The business venture got derailed, as many things at the time did, by World War II. Morrison served as an Army Air Force fighter pilot. His P-47 Thunderbolt was shot down over Italy and he was held as a POW for over a month, but he survived. After the war ended and he returned home, Morrison’s thoughts turned back to his homemade flyer. Employing notions of aerodynamics he picked up as a pilot, Morrison drew a sketch for a new version of the Flying Cake Pan called the Whirlo-Way. He completed his design 75 years ago this month, on September 10, 1946.
Morrison teamed up with investor Warren Franscioni. Franscioni financed Morrison’s new breakthrough idea: molding the Whirlo-Way out of lightweight plastic. Morrison and Franscioni split in 1950, even though Morrison was making sales headway by demonstrating and selling Whirlo-Ways at fairs. By 1955, Morrison had redesigned the disc into a new version called the Pluto Platter. He would eventually earn an official U.S. design patent for his work, but in 1957, Morrison decided to sell his rights and invention to the California toy company Wham-O.
That same year, Arthur Melin and Richard Knerr, Wham-O’s co-founders, made a funny discovery. The Pluto Platter was gaining popularity on college campuses, but, ironically, the concept had already been popular at Yale for years. It turns out that students had been throwing pie tins for a while, much like the Morrisons had in the 1930s. The Connecticut company that made the pies for Yale had their logo stamped in the tins: Frisbie Pie Company. The collegians had dubbed their flying discs “Frisbies.” Wham-O would eventually transition the name of the Pluto Platter to the (spelled differently for copyright reasons) Frisbee.
When Ed Headrick joined Wham-O as marketing V.P. and general manager in 1964, he tweaked the Frisbee design; Headrick changed the thickness of the rim, essentially giving the disc the weight and feel that’s still used today. He also put together a new strategy for marketing the toy, repositioning Frisbee as a sport. Sales started to take off in a big way. Headrick is considered the father of the modern Frisbee, and also the driving force behind popularizing an off-shoot that, perhaps not so ironically, also started with tin lids.
It turns out that tin lid throwing had been popular in Canada for decades. However, this version wasn’t played on a beach, but mimicked another widespread game. Tin Lid Golf had its debut in 1927 on the grounds of Bladworth Elementary School in Saskatchewan. With the rise of the modern Frisbee in the 1960s, other pockets of people began to play versions of golf. In 1975, Headrick left Wham-O and trademarked Disc Golf. He founded the Disc Golf Association, creating the new, smaller discs and the original basket design associated with the game. When Headrick died in 2002, he was cremated and the ashes, per his wishes, were molded into discs for family and close friends; a few were sold to benefit non-profits of Headrick’s choice.
As for the Frisbee, it was welcomed with the first class inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998. The Hall of Fame so esteemed the flying disc that it joined alongside stalwarts like Barbie, the Teddy Bear, the Hula Hoop, and Legos. Frisbees are readily available in a variety of stores everywhere, and Disc Golf supplies are a staple at sporting goods stores.
The journey from tin lid to today’s version took as many twists and turns as a beginner’s throw, well, that just seems appropriate. Happy 75th Birthday, Frisbee. Long may you fly.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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