Frederick Morrison: Inventor of the Frisbee

Wednesday 17 February 2010 01:00

Frisbee. The very word sounds like an onomatopoeic coining redolent of the hiss of a circular piece of plastic as it curves through the air for retrieval by adult, child or intervening dog – whose fang marks can affect the aeronautical precision of an object which, like the yo-yo or hula-hoop, looks so simple, so obvious. The result of two decades' work by Frederick Morrison, the Frisbee owed as much to chance as it did to intention, and, what's more, began as the by-product of a youthful love affair. All of this brought its inventor millions, his own airport, and frequent requests to address crowds for whom the object became the stuff of competition and anorakish tabulation.

Frederick Morrison was born in 1920 in Richfield, Utah where his father had a propensity for small-time invention. Morrison had an early fascination with flight, which included creating kites, and he recalled that, with the family's move to Los Angeles when he was 11, he developed a habit of watching from outside the fence aeroplanes at Glendale Airport on Saturday mornings. One day a pilot finished washing it and called out, "let's go fly this thing and dry it off".

Morrison climbed the fence, took off and an addiction to flight was born. A few years later, at Thanksgiving in 1937, he and a girlfriend, Lucille Nay, found themselves flipping a large popcorn lid and watching it became airborne. From this they developed a superior variant with cake lids, which, decorated, they were able to re-sell at some profit, Morrison showing a natural salesman's charm. When Miss Nay said yes they duly married. in the Second World War he served with the USAAF over Europe and, after coming a cropper in Italy, spent six weeks in Stalag-13.

Back on the West Coast, while resuming working as a carpenter, he went into partnership with Warren Franscioni to develop a moulded- plastic version of the cake lid. By 1948, when it was assumed that, for some reason, alien creatures would arrive by such a craft, the disc acquired the name Flyin' Saucer, and, as such, was hawked to little avail by the two men around fairgrounds and carnivals. After this failure brought the partners' separation, the disc mutated, after more work by Morrison, into the Pluto Platter.

Morrison stuck with it. He came to the attention of Wham-O, a Californian firm which had pioneered the hula hoop. Apparently inspired by discovering that Yale students' played similarly with the lids of tins from the Frisbie bakery in Bridgeport, Wham-O renamed the Platter, took out patents and paid Morrison such royalties that as the object took off, by the mid-Sixties, he was set for life and could quit the building-inspector job to which carpentry had led.

A droll guy, he remained in Los Angeles, although not finding the same success with other ideas. Inevitably there were some legal disputes. Come the early 1980s and divorce, he returned to Utah, where for some time he owned an airport, a motel and several racehorses while relishing the open spaces which had inspired his creation. He was eventually prevailed upon to describethe Frisbee, in collaboration with Phil Kennedy, in Flat Flip Flies Straight (2006), a launching instruction coined earlier by Lucille. Along with such chapters as "A Mold of our Own", it includes many appendices, such as grading the condition of vintage examples, all of which delights those for whom the Frisbee is not so much the cause of a twisted shoulder but an object of such veneration that it could have arrived from another galaxy rather than a Thanksgiving dinner.

Christopher Hawtree

Walter Frederick Morrison, inventor: born Richfield, Utah 23 January 1920; married Lucille Nay (three sons); died Monroe, Utah 9 February 2010.

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