Walter Frederick Morrison, 90, died at his home in Monroe, Utah, on Tuesday, February 9, 2010. He was survived by his son, two daughters, four grandchildren, and more than 200 million Frisbees. Yep, Morrison invented that famous flying plastic disc that everyone takes to the park or the beach.
This is essentially the tale of two pie tins, but let's start with the man who had the patent. Fred, as he was known, was the son of an inventor who came up with the sealed beam headlight. Morrison Minor was a carpenter and became a pilot in Word War II, spending some of it as a POW in Stalag 13 (which was a real prison camp 50 miles east of Frankfurt, not just somewhere for Colonel Hogan and his Heroes to carry out their hilarious capers).
Before that, though, at home in California in 1937, he and then-girlfriend Lucile (they married two years later) were throwing the lid of a popcorn can to each other while waiting for Thanksgiving dinner to cook. The lid proved too flimsy, so they changed it for a cake pan that also flew better. They had such a good time that they did the same thing on Santa Monica Beach a year later, whereupon they were approached by a man who offered them 25 cents for the tin. "You could buy a cake pan for five cents," said Morrison, a man with an entrepreneurial bent. "If people on the beach were willing to pay a quarter for it, well, there was a business."
When Morrison got back from the war (Stalag 13 was liberated on April 6, 1945), he used his knowledge of aerodynamics to design a dish dedicated to flying, which he called the Whirlo-Way. This evolved into a plastic item whose name cashed in on the UFO craze of the time: Flyin-Saucer. Morrison would sell these at weekend fairs and carnivals, sometimes while dressed in a mock spacesuit with a goldfish bowl-like helmet. In 1955, an improved version was dubbed the Pluto Platter.
The Wham-O toy company (who had the Super Ball and the Hula-Hoop) bought the rights in 1957. Which is where the second pie tin comes in. Wham-O's Rich Knerr found out that New England teenagers had been throwing pie tins to each other from the bakery of one Frisbie Pie Company. Knerr liked the word and called his new acquisition the Frisbee (either misspelling the word or, more likely, making a subtle change to avoid a lawsuit).
At first, Morrison hated the new name, but in 1982, having made $2 million from his royalty deal with Wham-O, he stated that he wouldn't change it "for the world."
There is, however, another man who played a crucial role in the Frisbee's ultimate success: Wham-O employee "Steady" Ed Headrick. In 1964, he added grooves to the top, thereby improving its flying ability even more and establishing a new patent in the process. They became known as the Rings of Headrick. The curve leading to the edge is called the Morrison Slope, by the way.
The Frisbee started to be marketed as a sports item, inspiring the game Ultimate Frisbee, a sport that professes to have the best elements of soccer, American football, and basketball. Frisbees have been sold on every continent except Antarctica.
Headrick died in 2002. In accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated and the ashes were formed into several Frisbee-shaped disks. Those ones probably couldn't fly as far as a normal plastic version, the record for which stands at 1,820.2 feet. And the longest time aloft is 16.72 seconds. That's according to the World Flying Disc Federation.
If anyone wanted to beat those numbers, perhaps Morrison himself might have a tip or two. "It's all in the wrist," he said. "A good throw takes practice. You need a good, firm grip and a quick release." But it might also take a modicum of luck. Morrison conceded that "the darn things can be unpredictable."