Fame and fortune from a flip

The Frisbee is still wildly popular a half century after its official launch. What a good life it has been for the inventor.

Published May 6, 2007

After a big Thanksgiving dinner in 1937, Walter Frederick "Fred" Morrison worked off the meal with family and friends by tossing around the lid from a popcorn tin.

A light bulb went off inside Morrison's head, so he worked up a prototype - a plastic disc that sailed through the air like a space ship. World War II intervened, but when Morrison got back, he went on the road with his wife, Lucile, perfecting a pitch for a simple toy that was about to become an American icon.

The toymaker Wham-O heard of Morrison's disc, then called the Pluto Platter. They hooked up with him and signed a deal, hoping for a strong follow-up to the Hula Hoop. But Wham-O wanted to finesse the name. The marketing department had heard that college kids were tossing around pie plates as a recreational pastime, so Wham-O re-christened the disc the Frisbee, intentionally misspelling a popular brand of pie.

Fifty years after Wham-O's launch, Frisbees have reached the big time. Ultimate, a disc game that mixes elements of football and soccer, has its own national and international contests; the 2006 college champion was the University of Florida. Disc golfers - who use a Frisbee instead of clubs and balls - play all over the world, and the Tampa Bay area has at least 10 disc golf courses. Find them on the Professional Disc Golf Association's Web site at www.pdga.com.

And Wham-O keeps making the Frisbees, with 30 models priced from $2.99 to $14.99.

To celebrate the anniversary, Wham-O has released a commemorative reproduction of Morrison's first Frisbee Pluto Platter, in its five original colors plus gold. The original instructions written by Lucile, who died in 1987, adorn the back: "Play Catch - Invent Games . . . Flat flip flies straight . . . Tilted flip curves - Experiment!" Morrison and co-author Phil Kennedy have written a definitive history of the Frisbee, Flat Flip Flies Straight! True Origins of the Frisbee, published last year. Morrison, 87, spoke with us from his home in Sevier County, Utah. 

You sold an early version of the Frisbee for more than a decade before Wham-O bought it. Were those difficult years?

It never was a struggle. I learned early you could sell the hell out of them at fairs. The Pluto Platter was an instant success. The crowds gathered around to watch and listen to our pitch, and that attracted the guys at Wham-O. 

Were you surprised when people invented sports like Ultimate Frisbee and Disc Golf?

My wife and I actually racked our brains trying to come up with the game, and couldn't do it. It's not easy to come up with a game. So that was a surprise, yes. With Ultimate Frisbee, they play it on a football field, and they throw that disk a million miles.

Do you have any advice for other inventors?

I don't. What happened in my era wouldn't happen today. What's amazing about my connection with the Wham-O people is that they didn't need us. They could have made their own mold, because there was no patent, no nothing. It speaks to the character of the people. Wham-O treats me like I'm something special, which I'm not. I didn't do anything spectacular.

What kind of things did you do with your Frisbee royalties?

It is inconceivable the size of the royalties I was getting, my wife and I. We opened a hardware store, a big one. That went on for several years. I learned to fly when I was in the Air Force, so I took up flying again and did a lot of that. Boats were part of the action. I bought the airport here where I live, bought a motel. All these things.

Do you ever throw the Frisbee around these days?

My flipping wing has been wiped out. Age has atrophied it, I guess.

Is there anything you've done in your life that tops inventing the Frisbee?

I've never given it any thought. This has been a hell of ride, this life of mine. The whole thing to me is a wonderment, what's happened. With my tongue in my cheek, I go around telling people I'm the internationally adulated super-luminary, but it's not deserved. It's the people at Wham-O who did all the work. 

What's the best way to throw a Frisbee?

It's the same wrist action you'd use to sail your hat onto a hook. It's that simple.

Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at aholan@sptimes.com.


On the Web:

Frisbee facts

History of the Frisbee: www.flatflip.com

Wham-O Frisbee: www.frisbeedisc.com

Ultimate Players Association: www.upa.org

Professional Disc Golf Association: www.pdga.com