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Origin of the Frisbee – An Empty Pie Plate and the Planet Pluto

Taryn Smee
Walter Fredrick Morrison promoting his Pluto Platters, the forerunner of the Frisbee, in the 1950s.
Walter Fredrick Morrison promoting his Pluto Platters, the forerunner of the Frisbee, in the 1950s.

Walter ‘Fred’ Morrison was not the kind of man to wait around for something to happen. A carpenter by trade and a natural salesman, he always had an eye for new inventions and it was selling a pie tin to a stranger that would be the inspiration for what would become a worldwide phenomenon.

Back in 1871, William Russell Frisbie was making delicious fresh pies out of his home kitchen in Bridgeport, Connecticut. As the Frisbie Pie website tells us, by 1915 the family had moved their business to a three-story Bridgeport bakery and the Frisbie Pie Company was born.

By 1920, Frisbie Pies were a resounding success, making over 50,000 pies a day, but it was the pie tins themselves that would lead to a new kind of revolution.

Frisbie’s Pies 1920s delivery truck.

Frisbie’s Pies 1920s delivery truck.

Another big player in Connecticut is the Ivy League College Yale, and the Frisbie Pie Company listed Yale as one of its customers. The official Yale College website stakes a big claim in the invention of the Frisbee, alleging that as far back as 1920, students would throw around Frisbie pie tins during their study breaks.

Frisbie pie tin. Photo by Doug Coldwell CC BY-SA 3.0

Frisbie pie tin. Photo by Doug Coldwell CC BY-SA 3.0

Other legends have it that the whole town of Bridgeport was in on the game and once they had eaten their pie they would throw the pie tins from roofs and shouting “Frisbie!” to warn any unwitting passer-by to watch their heads, much like the golfing shout of “Fore!”.

A frisbee made by Wham-O.

A frisbee made by Wham-O.

Fast forward to 1957 and the Wham-O Toy Company (famous as the creators of that other circular plastic toy, the hula-hoop) has just bought the rights to a toy called the Pluto Platter.

A dog jumping to catch a frisbee.

A dog jumping to catch a frisbee.

As reported by the New York Times, Fred Morrison had been developing the concept since 1941, firstly naming it the “Whirl-o-Way” and then the “Flyin’ Saucer” but it wasn’t until it’s third incantation as the Pluto Platter with its aerodynamic shape and intergalactic raised print that the idea started to catch on. Morrison, ever the businessman, sold the idea to Wham-O for lifetime royalty rights.

A frisbee containing some of the ashes of Ed Headrick. On display at Ripley’s Believe it or Not, London. Photo by Chemical Engineer CC BY-SA 4.0

A frisbee containing some of the ashes of Ed Headrick. On display at Ripley’s Believe it or Not, London. Photo by Chemical Engineer CC BY-SA 4.0

Within six months of buying the design, according to the New York Times, the executives at Wham-O decided to try out the popular name used by the kids in Connecticut and renamed the Pluto Platter the Frisbee.

Refreshment In The Workplace (1951)

They removed the intergalactic design and the Frisbee was born, becoming an international sensation and adding a new verb, “frisbee-ing,” to the English language.

People have invented scores of games using this simple toy.

People have invented scores of games using this simple toy.

When Fred Morrison was interviewed by the New York Times for the 50th anniversary of the Frisbee in 2007, he reported that he wasn’t really sold on the new name for the Pluto Platter when it was first pitched to him. “I thought Frisbee was a terrible name,” Morrison said. “I thought it was insane.”

Goodtimes Frisbee Show poster created by Ken Westerfield 1980. Photo by Ken Westerfield CC BY-SA 3.0

Goodtimes Frisbee Show poster created by Ken Westerfield 1980. Photo by Ken Westerfield CC BY-SA 3.0

However, after the resounding success of the Frisbee and the clever business deal made with Wham-O he had a change of heart, jokingly saying, “It just goes to show I am a bad judge of names.”

The first Frisbee ever designed for a Frisbee disc sport competition, 1972. Photo byAudra454 CC BY-SA 4.0

The first Frisbee ever designed for a Frisbee disc sport competition, 1972. Photo byAudra454 CC BY-SA 4.0

From hamburgers and pizza to the Frisbee, Yale College seems to have a tradition of claiming “firsts.” We may never be able to pinpoint the exact moment that the Frisbee was invented but realistically, nothing exists in a vacuum, especially not good ideas. It was the right time and Fred Morrison was the right man to bring the Frisbee into the public imagination.

Read another story from us: The Remarkable Turnspit Dog, a Breed Specially Designed to Help in the Kitchen

As quoted in Time Magazine, Dr. Stancil Johnson, who serves as Frisbee’s official historian when not practicing psychiatry, states the reason that Frisbee has remained one of the most popular toys through the generations is that they are “the perfect marriage between man’s greatest tool—his hand—and his greatest dream —to fly.”