History of the Frisbee
Other Lessons in This Course
- History of the Frisbee
- History of Promotional Products
- History of Fidget Spinners
- History of Tote Bags
- History of Pens
- History of Modern Trade Shows
- History of Stress Balls
- History of Lunch Boxes
- History of T-Shirts
- History of Koozies
- History of the Frisbee
- History of Coffee Mugs
- History of Pencils
- History of Reusable Water Bottles
- History of Logo Design
The story of how the Frisbee was invented spans across decades and goes from ancient Greece to an East Coast Ivy League university, the beaches of California to Ultimate Frisbee tournaments around the world.
The Frisbee is part of every college campus, beach trip, and disc golf tournament. They are great promotional giveaways for fundraisers and trade shows, plus they make any family reunion a bit more bearable. People love to have something to play with, no matter what their age, and nothing is more fun than tossing a flying disc.
Who invented the Frisbee? Why do we love playing with these high flyers? Toss a few in the air and get ready to learn the complete history of the Frisbee!
The Frisbie Pie Company served their delicious slices in these aluminum tins. The pies were well-loved by Yale students as they could be both study snacks and a fun way to spend time on campus.
Walter “Fred” Morrison and his business partner Warren Franscioni sold “Flyin-Saucers” at beaches, parks, and community fairs. Woolworth’s was one of the first retail stores to sell the product at only $1 each.
Morrison and Franscioni attempted to boost sales by printing characters from the “Little Abner” comic strip on their flying discs. Eventually the comic’s creator sued their company for violating the agreement.
Bill Robes brought competition to the marketplace with Space Saucers. These flying discs didn’t dent as easily or cut up hands when they were tossed through the air.
1957Dennis McLellan, The Los Angeles Times, February 2010
Wham-O acquired the rights to Morrison’s invention and changed the name to Frisbee. It didn’t take long for these flying discs to become huge hits, making well over $100 million in their lifetime.
Ed Headrick, an employee at Wham-O, unleashed a new disc with grooves at the top that were referred to as Rings of Headrick. These Frisbees were the first professional models as they improved stability and speed.
Joel Silver and his high school friends started playing Ultimate Frisbee in the parking lot. Five years later, it became an official sport that has since been played in colleges around the country.
Wham-O jumped on the glow in the dark trend with their Fastback Frisbee. At this point, Frisbees were flying off the shelves meaning this was an extra popular gift.
Disc golf was invented by Ed Headrick, the same man who added ridges to the Frisbee. This sport is a lot less athletically intense than Ultimate Frisbee.
Once Frisbee had been established as a sport, popular characters like Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man started showing up on the exterior. These flying discs were a great way to promote their shows and movies.
As the Frisbee fad was in full gear, many bands began to market with these popular toys. The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin were a couple that got additional exposure with customized Frisbees.
Companies took notice of how popular Frisbees were with all age groups. Good Year, Oreo, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and many others offered flying discs to promote their respective brands.
Flying discs were crafted from materials other than hard plastic. Polyester became popular as it was easy to fold, had a high tenacity, and was waterproof for the pool and rainy days.
Wham-O Toys was bought out from Mattel, allowing other companies to create Frisbees. Today, an estimated 60 manufacturers exist in the United States.
LED Frisbees emerged as a popular way to host games in the dark. These discs use light-emitting diodes that create a flashy spectacle in the night sky!
The U.S. military reportedly worked on 3D Frisbees that functioned as surveillance cameras. These lethal flyers were meant to detect enemies and fire from upper story locations.
High school students used graphic design software, like Adobe Illustrator and QuarkXPress, to create designs on Frisbees for a class project. This shows how updated technology is still used on classic objects.
Todd Richards, a signed free agent for the San Francisco 49ers, revived the Wham-O name. The new company is located in California and employees have “Frisbee Fridays” in the parking lot.
Germany hosted the Disc Dog Challenge, which featured a number of canines catching Frisbees. Around 60 participants from seven different countries competed in the event.
Throwing Our Favorite Treats
Before we had an official Frisbee, people would spend their days tossing pie tins, cookie lids, or cake pans to one another. The Frisbie Pie Company, founded by William R. Frisbie, was a pioneer of these dessert discs. The bakery in Bridgeport, Connecticut was a mere twenty-five minute drive from Yale, meaning the students could bring their dessert back to campus.
As the story goes, they would play catch with the tins after finishing their slices of pecan or lemon meringue. By the basic laws of physics, these flying pie tins were held aloft due to their shape and orientation as they floated through the air. Overall, the pressure from the air above and below the tin pushed it upward and kept it moving forward. The entire campus could hear the students yelling “Frisbie!” as a heads up call to those passing by, similar to the “Fore!” you hear from golfers. Who would have thought avoiding study time by tossing a pie tin around would create an entirely new pastime? This was a fun and affordable way to spend downtime on campus.
Who Invented the Frisbee?
Walter “Fred” Morrison and his future wife Lucille were also in on the tin throwing fad. Instead of using a pie tin, however, they threw a cake pan around during a Thanksgiving gathering. The game was so exciting and inspiring, they both wanted to run with the idea. Only a few months after that first game, Walter and Lucille started selling “Flyin’ Cake Pans” on the beaches of Santa Monica, California. The cake pans cost only 5 cents, but beach goers were willing to shell out a quarter to be entertained by these high-flyers.
At the time, the duo was only making extra side cash off their invention. Walter worked as a building inspector and didn’t intend on kickstarting an industry. That all changed, however, after World War II, where Walter served as a fighter pilot and was shot down in Italy. When he returned home, he was armed with newfound knowledge of aerodynamics, which helped him build a more upgraded disc than the cake pan he was originally selling with Lucille. Recovering from the war, he decided to work on these discs since they “had been in the back of his mind since he was a kid".
The Forgotten Frisbee Inventor: Warren Franscioni
Nearly a decade after his initial game in the park, Morrison teamed up with another pilot, Warren Franscioni, to start their own company, Pipco, also known as Partners in Plastic.
Plastic was experiencing a new refined manufacturing process that made it more lightweight and easier to mold. This made the discs cheaper to make and less painful to catch, which in turn, helped the Frisbee eventually rise in popularity. Before that could happen, however, Morrison and Franscioni had to experiment with different types and shapes to really perfect the design. One of the early models shattered into pieces as soon as it struck the ground. Another had the spoilers backwards so it could only be thrown by the left hand. Eventually, through the power of injection molding and a more durable polyethylene plastic, they found the magic formula, creating what Morrison affectionally referred to as “a hoop with a membrane.” These discs were marketed as “Flyin-Saucers” since America was obsessed with UFOs at the time. They were sold at beaches, parks, fairs, and eventually, for $1 at retail stores like Woolworth’s in Glendale, California.
Despite creating a better disc, sales on the Flyin-Saucers were fairly dismal. Morrison and Franscioni tried to counter this setback by signing an advertising agreement with “Little Abner.” This contract gave them the rights to print the iconic character on the Flyin-Saucers in the hopes of boosting sales. Unfortunately, the partnership fell through when they violated the contract by including inserts from the comic strip with the purchase of the flying disc. Al Capp, the creator of “Little Abner” wasn’t too pleased and demanded $5000 in damages.
With so much turmoil behind their idea, Franscioni eventually walked away from the Flyin-Saucers and went back to war. Morrison was on his own to find another manufacturer, changing the name to Pluto Platters. He raised the center of the disc to make it more aerodynamic and tried to operate the business entirely on his own.
Wham! The Rise of the Frisbee
Being a one-man show must have proven to be too much for Morrison. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Wham-O Toys (who eventually became Mattel) took the reins on the Pluto Platters. Rich Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin (the same men behind the Hula Hoop and Slip ‘n Slide) stumbled upon these flying discs and were willing to make an offer. Morrison handed over all his rights to his invention in exchange for quarterly checks. From there, Wham-O was free to do as they pleased with the flying discs, including marketing them under a new name: the Frisbee.
Wham-O was inspired to rename Morrison’s flying discs based on jargon heard around college campuses in the early pie tin throwing days. Interestingly enough, the Frisbie Pie Company closed its doors the same year Wham-O patented the Frisbee, ensuring the name still lived on. Still, early sales were a bust as they didn’t fly through the air very successfully.
The Frisbee may have never soared if it wasn’t for one employee at Wham-O, Ed Headrick. He completely changed the design of the flying discs by adding grooved ridges that are now known as the Rings of Headrick. These allowed for more velocity and stability as the discs soared through the air. Furthermore, these Frisbees were the first “professional models” on the market, which was important for the rise of Frisbee as a sport.
With a great new name and design, customers started to take notice of the Frisbee. Before Wham-O was bought out by Mattel they had reached over $100 million in sales and sold an estimated 300 million discs. They were extremely proud of these flying toys, even putting framed pictures in their hallways of celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger playing with Frisbees.
A New Sport is Born
Wham-O’s Frisbee started becoming extremely popular among athletes by the mid-1960s. At the time, the Vietnam War was in full swing and young people were looking for ways to escape from the chaos. College and high school students alike embraced tossing and catching these flying discs, leading to the first organized Ultimate Frisbee games in the country.
The sport gained notoriety when Joel Silver was daring enough to bring it up at a student council meeting in 1967. Silver’s vision was to organize a team at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. Within just a year, he was able to make that a reality when the Student Council challenged the school newspaper, The Columbian, to the first ever Ultimate Frisbee match in the parking lot, with telephone poles and coats served as the goal lines. From there, Silver and his crew worked on fine-tuning their game and creating an official rulebook.
Five years after the game in the parking lot, Ultimate Frisbee was recognized around the world. The first college game ever played took place between Rutgers and Princeton on November 6, 1972. Today, the sport is still growing and becoming more popular. In fact, Ultimate Frisbee was recognized by the Olympic committee in 2015.
The game is structured with two teams, each consisting of between five and thirty-five players. The field is similar in design to a football field with seven players from each team starting in their respective end zones. The goal is to pass the disc all the way down the field as the other team plays defense. You only have ten seconds to throw the disc before it’s forfeited to the other team. Plus, you’re completely stuck in the spot you caught the disc since you are not permitted to run when it’s in your possession. If the Frisbee touches the ground, the opposing team is now on offense.
Advertising with Custom Frisbees
Frisbees were all the rage by the mid-1970s and companies took notice. These flying discs were the perfect way to advertise since everyone loved them and they brought excitement to events. Popular brands like Coca-Cola, Budweiser, and Frosted Flakes printed their logo on custom Frisbees. These were often used or given away at Ultimate Frisbee competitions. The winning team would receive a commemorative Frisbee to take home with them as a souvenir of the event. The disc would be printed with the sponsoring company’s logo.
The Bottom Line
Everybody loves a good Frisbee. Your kids play with it at the park, adults compete in tournaments, even your dog Fido likes catching one during a game of fetch. These flying discs are wonderful company giveaways since they’re fun and last for years. There’s really no better way to send your brand soaring!
Alyssa is the super cool Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. She’s a fan of diving into the history of some of the earliest promos on the planet. If you need her, you’ll find her buried in research, in the middle of a phone interview, or singing way off-tune in her office.
Uhler, D. (2017, July 24). Frisbees Have Been Flying for 50 Years. St. Louis Post.
Baird, Sarah, Eater, “A Brief History of America’s Favorite Beer Companion, the Koozie"
Ebel, R. (2011 December). High End, Low End: Which Promotional Products Work Best? Promotional Products Association International. Retrieved June 5, 2018, from http://static.ppai.org/documents/highendlowendreportwithcover.pdf
How Products Are Made. (2018). Frisbee. Retrieved June 5, 2018, from http://www.madehow.com/Volume-5/Frisbee.html
Andrews, T. (2011, August 4). Company Picnics Are Back, Baby. ASI Central. Retrieved June 5, 2018, from https://www.asicentral.com/news/blogs/tims-blog/2011/company-picnics-are-back-baby
McLellan, D. (2010, February 13). Inventor’s Flying Disc Became Frisbee. Retrieved June 5, 2018, from https://www.newspapers.com/image/193652421/?terms=William+Morrison+Frisbee
James, S. (1987, August 3). Happy 30th, Frisbee. The Palm Beach Post.
Malafronte, V. (1998). The Complete Book of Frisbee: The History of the Sport & The First Official Price Guide. Alameda, CA: American Trends Publishing Co.
Jones, C. (1991). Mistakes That Worked. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.
Bloomfield, L. (2001). How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Freinkel, S. (2011). Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Collectors Weekly. (2018). Vintage Frisbees. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from https://www.collectorsweekly.com/sporting-goods/frisbees
Marvin’s Flying Disc Collection. (2018). Frisbee Museum. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from http://www.marvinsflyingdisccollection.com/wham-o.html
Winner, T. (2018, January 5). A Flick of the Wrist: Flying Discs and Frisbees. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from http://www.museumofplay.org/blog/2018/01/a-flick-of-the-wrist-flying-discs-and-frisbees
New England Historical Society. (2018). The Sweet New England History of the Frisbee. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-sweet-new-england-history-of-the-frisbee/
Ultimate Australia. (2018). History of Ultimate. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from https://afda.com/history-of-ultimate
Retroland. (2018). Frisbee. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from http://www.retroland.com/frisbee/ Retroland. (2018). Frisbee. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from http://www.retroland.com/frisbee/
Connecticut History. (2018). A Pie Tin’s Soaring Sales. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from https://connecticuthistory.org/a-pie-tins-soaring-sales/
Griggs, G. (2009, July 10). The Origins and Development of Ultimate Frisbee. The Sport Journal: University of Wolverhampton, U.K.
Keohane, J. (2018, March). One Hell of a Comeback. Retrieved June 7, 2018, from Entrepreneur.com.
Leonardo, P. (2007). Ultimate: The Greatest Sport Ever Invented By Man. Halcottsville, NY: Breakaway Books.
Health and Fitness History. (2018). Greek Discus. Retrieved June 7, 2018, from https://healthandfitnesshistory.com/ancient-fitness-tools/greek-discus/