'I never liked the name,' said Frisbee inventor who has died at 90

It started in a back garden with a popcorn lid and sold 200m units across the world

Guy Adams
Saturday 13 February 2010 01:00

The man who invented the Frisbee – the simple plastic disc that became a billion-dollar craze and a symbol of misspent youth on beaches, parks, and university campuses all over the world – has died, at the age of ninety.

Walter Frederick Morrison, a pilot, carpenter and backyard entrepreneur who developed the flying toy from the lid of a popcorn tin, passed away at his ranch in Utah, his attorney said yesterday. He had been suffering from lung cancer and died on Tuesday.

"That simple little toy has permeated every continent in every country, and as many homes now have Frisbees as any other device ever invented," attorney Kay McIff told the Associated Press. "How would you possibly get through your youth without learning to throw a Frisbee?"

Morrison's son, Walt, added that "old age caught up" with his father, who lived on an 80-acre ranch in Monroe, where he bred racehorses. "He was a nice guy. He helped a lot of people," Walt told reporters. "He was an entrepreneur. He was always looking for something to do."

The Frisbee story began on the afternoon of Thanksgiving 1937, when Morrison and his then-girlfriend, Lucile "Lu" Nay began tossing the circular lid of a popcorn tin around in the backyard of her mother's house to pass time before dinner.

When the disc became dented, they swapped it for a sturdier cake pan. A few days later, a passer-by saw them throwing the pan some distance across a beach in Southern California, and offered to buy it – thereby convincing the couple that they could make money from the product.

After serving as a pilot in World War Two, Morrison, who was by then married to Lucile, decided to apply some of his newfound knowledge of aerodynamics to the design of a plastic version of the disc called the "Flyin Saucer" which he began selling at weekend fairs and carnivals. Sales didn't really take off until the mid-1950s, when he tweaked the design and – trying to cash in on public interest in space exploration – stamped the names of the planets of the solar system around its rim and renamed it the "Pluto Platter".

In 1957, he caught the eye of a Californian toy company called Wham-O, which had made a fortune with a plastic ring it had christened the Hula-Hoop. The firm bought exclusive rights to the Pluto Platter from Morrison, in exchange for lifetime royalties.

Wham-O's marketing executives decided to rename the toy "The Frisbee" after its market researchers discovered that teenagers in New England had given "Pluto Platters" that nickname because of a local bakery called the Frisbee Pie Company, whose tins could also be thrown.

The name-change was a marketing triumph. The Frisbee promptly became a national craze. Today, Wham-O says it has sold more than 200 million of the ubiquitous toys, in every continent except Antarctica.

There are semi-professional Ultimate Frisbee and Frisbee Golf leagues. The World Flying Disc Federation registers official records, including the one for Frisbee toss ( 250m exactly) and maximum time aloft (16.72 seconds).

Morrison made a fortune from royalties, and carried on trying to invent toys. Wham-O later launched his "Crazy Eight Bowling Balls" and "Popsicle Machine," though they never managed anything like the success of the Frisbee. After divorcing Lucile he retired to his ranch in Utah, where he had been raised, and devoted himself to running the local airport and a motel.

Despite the fame and fortune it brought him, Morrison apparently never liked the Frisbee name. "He thought it didn't apply to anything," his biographer Phil Kennedy told the The Wall Street Journal yesterday. "It was just a crazy name that didn't mean anything."

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