How did the Frisbee Get Its Name?

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

Many promotional products have a fascinating history, including the Frisbee. The story of how the Frisbee was invented and named spans almost ninety years and goes from an East Coast Ivy League university to a German POW camp, the beaches of California, and an alien crash site.

The story begins in 1871, when William Russell Frisbie was hired to manage the Olds Baking Company in New Haven, Connecticut. He soon bought the company and renamed it Frisbie Pie Company. Ironically, the Frisbee was not named, invented, or owned by anyone directly connected to the Frisbie Pie Company. However, this company contributed to the flying disc we know today!

A Word of Warning

During the good old days, people had to be creative and make their own toys. Frisbie's pie tins made decent, if somewhat dangerous, throwing discs. On the campus of Yale University, students would often throw the empty pie tins towards one another, yelling "Frisbie" in much the same way a golfer might yell "fore" before taking a swing.

William Frederick "Fred" Morrison never went to Yale. In fact, he was living on the opposite side of the country in Los Angeles. In 1937, he was tossing a pie tin on a beach with his then-girlfriend, Lucille Nay, when a passerby offered to buy the tin from them for twenty-five cents. Fred saw an opportunity, and by 1939, the two of them had made enough money from selling their "Flyin' Cake Pans" to get married.

Further business plans were put on hold, however, when Fred was drafted into the United States Army and became a P-47 pilot during World War II. After being shot down over Italy, he was held for a month in Germany's infamous Stalag 13. When he finally returned to the United States after the war, Fred had a much stronger knowledge of aerodynamics, knowledge he would use to vastly improve the design of his flying cake pan.

What About the Aliens?

In 1946, Fred began marketing the "Whirlo-Way," named after the 1941 Triple Crown winning racehorse, Whirlaway. However, sales on the Whirlo-Way were less than impressive.

It was at this point that Fred latched onto two late 1940s crazes: UFOs and plastic. Following the alleged 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, extraterrestrials became a craze, leading to the release of the "Flyin-Saucer" disc in 1948. The Flyin-Saucer was the first throwing disc made from plastic instead of tin, which made it both easier to mold to a more aerodynamic shape and safer to use. Eventually, Fred would change the name once again to the "Pluto Platter."

Birth of the "Frisbee"

While Fred Morrison had a great deal of aerodynamic knowledge, he wasn't nearly as gifted at marketing his Pluto Platters as he was at building them. Fortunately, there were others who saw the potential of his invention and would prove far more capable at marketing. In 1955, Richard Knerr and A.J. "Spud" Melin found Morrison in downtown Los Angeles, selling his Pluto Platters on the street. After talking it over, Morrison agreed to sell the rights for his Pluto Platter to Knerr and Melin's fledgling toy company, Wham-O.

At first, the discs sold no better for Wham-O than they'd done for Morrison. Knerr had faith in the toy, though, and traveled across the country, marketing the flying discs to toy stores. It was during one of his trips to the East Coast that Knerr first heard about college students "Frisbie-ing." With no idea of the origins of the term (or even how it was spelled), Knerr re-named the Pluto Platter a "Frisbee."

Aliens were all the rage in the 1940s!

By Any Other Name... Would Avoid a Lawsuit

And how did Fred Morrison feel about the new name? His polite answer was, "I thought it was a terrible name." In less polite terms, he thought it was "insane."

But the name stuck, and Frisbees have become so popular over the last half-century that the name is now synonymous with any flying disc. But don't be fooled. The Frisbee's design is a unique, trademarked property, and Wham-O's legal department works tirelessly to ensure that any company that calls its flying disc a "Frisbee" is legally licensed to do so.

The next time you find yourself or one of the kids nearby playing with some random object, pay attention. You might just be witnessing the invention of the next great toy to rival the Frisbee! And if you have to go through a few names before finding the right one, don't worry. History says you're in pretty good company.