Inventor of the ‘Flying Saucer Toy,’ the Frisbee, Passes Away!

Walter Frederick Morrison, 90, the inventor of the Frisbee, died February 9th at his Utah home. The Southern California toy company, Wham-O, has sold more than 200 million Frisbees to date. “That simple little toy has permeated every continent in every country, as many homes have Frisbees as any other device ever invented,” says Morrison’s attorney, Kay Mclff.

Wham-O also sells such popular toys as the Hula Hoop, the Water Wiggle and the Super Ball. Fred Morrison signed a contract with Wham-O in 1957, essentially selling the rights of the ‘Frisbee’ for over a million dollars plus future royalties.

I would argue that a good amount of Morrison’s royalties were awarded in the latter 1960s, when the ‘Youth Movement’ (often referred to as the Hippies) adapted the Frisbee as their official sport. Suddenly every longhair from Sacramento to Timbuktu was hanging out their local park and spending hours throwing the ‘Pluto Platter’ in the air for their faithful dog to catch. Dog participation is the centrifugal force in this new recreational sport.

Fred Morrison
Zany Inventor of Frisbee, Walter Fred Morrison, in spacesuit

It’s easy to get ourselves on dicey waters when tracing the precise provenance of this ‘flying disc,’ but I will provide a basic outline of the birth of this marvelous outdoor flying saucer. In order to quell many myths surrounding the Frisbee’s invention, Fred Morrison co-authored a book with a historian, Phil Kennedy, “Flat Flip Flies Straight! True Origins of the Frisbee,” published in 2006. (The Washington Post-Fred Morrison, inventor of the Frisbee, dies at 90 by Emma Brown-2/12/2010)

The intrinsic controversy lies with a Wham-O employee, Ed Headrick, who really refined the Frisbee in the 1960s to its current design. Headrick’s did away with the space theme and added concentric grooves that helped to smooth out the disc in flight. I have personally observed a lack of wobble in the saucer as it descends and lands in the ‘bowser mouth,’ who then happily fetches it back to his master for another spin. (The Washington Post-ibid)

It’s sad to report that Ed Headrick’s never received one dime in royalties. Oh stop that! We go back in time now to 1937 now, when Fred Morrison and his girlfriend, Lucile “Lu” Nay, had some fun tossing a popcorn-tin around in the backyard on a Thanksgiving Day holiday. Once the popcorn-tin got too wasted, they replaced it with a tin pie plate. I have heard it called a cake pan also, but I prefer pie plate as a more accurate description. No doubt, fodder for academic ink, or a possible dissertation on this pie verse cake conundrum?

That’s important, but let’s not get lost in a forest (cake) of pie-pans that take the cake for peculiarity (if you get my drift)? Oh, maybe we shall! Anyway, Mr. Morrison and his girl were flinging a pan on the beach one day, when a passerby marveled at the sport of the happy-go-lucky couple. The stupefied observer anxiously offered a quarter for a pan that cost just a nickel. The entrepreneurial angle comes into play at this juncture.

Now that he saw that money could be made, Fred began in earnest refining the flying-cake-pan. I am not privy to these exact changes, but I do know that a little event popped up, WWII, and Fred Morrison became a fighter-bomber who was shot down over Italy. In the meantime Fred had married his easy-life-style partner, Lu Nay, and they nestled in Southern California, where he chose the trade of a carpenter.

Pluto Platter, the Frisbee
The WhamO ‘Pluto Platter,’ otherwise known to us as the Frisbee.

The pivotal change in the ‘Pluto Platter’ comes in the mid-1950s when a metal object is converted to plastic. I see this as Fred’s most significant innovation to the ‘saucer-toy,’ that makes a direct beeline to the Wham-O knickknack that took meteoric-flight off dime-store shelves, throughout the 1960s! We’re waddling in Frisbee-theory here, but it’s necessary to capture the Zeitgeist: Tin to Plastic! The birth of a miracle platter!

The Cats at Wham-O must be granted some credit here too. Rich Knerr and A. K. ‘Spud’ Melin, the owners of Wham-O, signed the deal with Morrison and did the needed marketing to make the product ‘fly’. But Fred got his patent (design patent 183,626) and a good royalty deal, I must add. The toy partners secured the groovy name from the Frisbie Baking Company, which had shut down in 1958. ( First Flight of the Frisbee by Mary Bellis.)

Wham-O changed the spelling from Frisbie to Frisbee, a smart way to avoid a frivolous lawsuit. The fifty year old Frisbee is owned by Mattel nowadays. Not to downplay the marketing sagacity of Rich Knerr and A. K. ‘Spud’ Melin, yet I must conjecture that the Frisbee was just a natural for the times that it was conceived in.

Suddenly the ‘Hippies’ had their own sport of choice. Now Dudes could spend countless hours at a local rundown park (with broken merry-go-rounds and shoddy swing sets) with their buddies, girlfriends and favorite bow-wow, practicing disc-catching skills ’til the cows come home!

I am most sorry for the passing of Fred Morrison, a genius-inventor of the caliber of greats such as Thomas Edison or Eli Whitney! The popularity of the Frisbee will never die! It will persist until Armageddon finally sweeps us into the briny depths of the ocean blue. But as we sink in the ocean depths we’ll toss the private flying saucer one last time to our soggy, salt-watered doggie who barks bubbles and spits greenie seaweed out on the briny bottom.

Fred Morrison is credited with two other less popular invention-fads, his Crazy Eight Bowling Balls and his Popsicle Machine. I vaguely remember these gadgets from my youth? Hopefully, Mattel is still making these toys, because these could easily reap beaucoup sales, in light of the passing of Fred Morrison. But his claim to fame was summed up by his biographer, Phil Kennedy.

“Fred’s the one who thought of commercializing something that people had been doing forever-picking up a round, flat object and watching it sail.” The Frisbee phenomenon was born. “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s a Pluto Platter from Toys ‘R’ Us (my way)!” ( inventor dies at 90 by Dan Gilgoff)