Today, we celebrate the Frisbee, that sublime, colorful and somewhat mysterious flying disc. The ancient origins of the Frisbee are lost in the annals of history, though no doubt, it was a child who first discovered that flat wood chips and discarded roofing shingles made for interesting projectiles. During the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci, in his famous flying experiments, designed a number of contraptions in which spinning to create lift was the all-important element. It is unlikely, however, that Leonardo ever played Frisbee with his painter friends down along the banks of the Arno.
In fact, the word Frisbee comes from a man who lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the late 1800s. William Russell Frisbie - baker - sold his pies in tins with the words Frisbie stamped on the side starting in the 1870s. One of his big customers was Yale University, and it was at that school, in the 1920s that somebody first noticed that the students had invented a new game. They were throwing upside-down pie tins to one another and yelling "Frisbie!"
Into this drama steps the inventor of the home Popsicle maker, Mr. Walter Frederick Morrison. Deep within the recesses of Morrison's basement he was experimenting with tenite, a plastic used in camera parts. In the late 1940s his breakthrough came at last. In an epiphany, Morrison added the curled under-lip to his hard plastic flying disc. He threw it, and for the first time, a Frisbie flew straight. Unfortunately, the brittle disc exploded into a thousand pieces upon impact with a tree. Undaunted, Morrison developed a more flexible material. Once perfected, Morrison took his Frisbie to the beach. He called his invention the L'il Abner after the popular cartoon character, and it was on the beaches and fairgrounds of Southern California that Morrison barnstormed the The L'il Abner into popularity. In the late 1950s, executives from the Wham-O Company came upon the flying toy - and were amazed. They saw potential here. They thought that an American culture so interested in flying saucers and little green men from Mars would love this toy. They bought the patent from Morrison, added some images of planets on the rim and called it the Pluto Platter.
A year later, in homage to the pie-maker from Connecticut, the name of the product was changed to Frisbee. Today there are more Frisbees sold every year than footballs, basketballs and baseballs combined. Affection for the sport has spread from humans to canines - and just in case you didn't know, the world distance record for Frisbee throwing is precisely 693.3 feet.
Schmittroth, Linda, Mary Reilly McCall and Bridget Travers, eds. Eureka! Volume 3: F-J, UXL, Gale Research, New York, 1995.
Harper, Charise M,. Imaginative Inventions, The Who, What, Where, When, and Why of Roller Skates, Potato Chips, Marbles, and Pie and More. Little Brown, Boston, 2001.
Roddick, Dan. Frisbee Disc Basics, Prentice Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs NJ. 1980.
Mathe, Jean. Leonardo's Inventions. Minerva Books, Paris. 1989.
Copyright 2003 © Kevin Shortsleeve
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