Fred Morrison, inventor of the Frisbee, dies at 90

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; B06

Fred Morrison, 90, a pilot and carpenter most often credited with inventing that most ubiquitous of backyard toys, the Frisbee, died Feb. 9 at his home in Monroe, Utah. He had lung cancer.

People have been tossing flat, round objects for millennia, and the origins of the Frisbee have been shrouded in conflicting claims and legend. But it was Mr. Morrison who created the flying disc that was eventually marketed to the world, giving rise to a beloved form of egalitarian picnic entertainment and spin-off sports including Ultimate Frisbee, canine Frisbee, freestyle Frisbee and professional disc golf, a sport that's grown large enough that its champions can now make a living on prize money and sponsorships.

Inspiration for Mr. Morrison's flying-saucer toy came in 1937 at a Thanksgiving feast in Southern California. He and his girlfriend, Lucile "Lu" Nay, entertained themselves by tossing a popcorn-tin lid in the backyard. The lid eventually became dented, ruining its aerodynamic potential, and the resourceful couple snatched a cake pan from Mr. Morrison's mother's kitchen.

Cake pans, it turned out, were sturdier and flew better -- so much so that one day, when the two were flinging a pan back and forth on the beach, an impressed passerby offered to buy it. The pan had originally cost a nickel, the stranger offered a quarter -- and that exchange was enough to whet Mr. Morrison's entrepreneurial appetite.

"That got the wheels turning," he told a Norfolk, Va., reporter in 2007. "There was a business."

He and Nay, whom he eventually married, sold the pans at local beaches and parks. Mr. Morrison was at work on a new and improved flying-cake-pan design when he went off to World War II as a fighter-bomber pilot. Shot down while flying a mission over Italy, he spent 48 days as a prisoner of war in a German camp.

After the war, Mr. Morrison and Nay settled in Southern California. He went to work as a carpenter, but he continued sketching designs for his better-than-ever cake pan. When a series of alleged UFO sightings launched a national craze for all things extraterrestrial, Mr. Morrison took advantage, designing and launching the world's first plastic disc, the Flyin-Saucer, in 1948.

No one knew quite what to do with a Flyin-Saucer unless the possibilities were demonstrated in person, so Mr. Morrison and his then-business partner, Warren Franscioni, traveled to weekend fairs and carnivals to sell their aerial wares.

Still, sales sagged and the two parted ways.

Undaunted, Mr. Morrison tried again in the mid-1950s. He developed a new mold for a disc he called the Pluto Platter, stamped with the names of all the solar system's planets around its rim. Again he made the rounds at local fairs, this time dressed in space-travel garb. "Play catch," read the instructions written by his wife on the back side of the Platter. "Flat Flip Flies Straight, Tilted Flip Curves -- Experiment!"

A young California company called Wham-O, which had made a name for itself with the Hula Hoop, took notice of the Platter's brisk sales. In 1957, Mr. Morrison signed over the Pluto Platter rights to Wham-O in exchange for lifetime royalties.

On a trip to the East Coast, Wham-O executives discovered that young people had their own name for the Platters -- "Frisbies," after the Frisbie Pie Co. in Bridgeport, Conn., a bakery whose pie tins had long been popular for tossing on New England college campuses. With a slight change of spelling to avoid trademark trouble, Wham-O's Frisbee was born.

A Wham-O representative said the company has sold well over 200 million Frisbees, which have grown beyond their roots as casual playthings.

In addition to professional disc golf, in which players attempt to hit targets rather than sink putts, athletes play Ultimate Frisbee, a cross between soccer and football whose American players' association claims more than 27,000 members; Guts, in which players attempt to catch each other's high-speed throws without breaking their fingers; and canine Frisbee, in which people throw Frisbees to their dogs, who compete for the most impressive catches.

The World Flying Disc Federation tracks a slew of world records, including longest Frisbee toss (about 820 feet by a Swede named Christian Sandstrom) and maximum time aloft (16.72 seconds by American Don Cain).

Walter Fredrick Morrison was born Jan. 23, 1920, in Richfield, Utah, and moved with his family to Los Angeles as a teenager.

After making his deal with Wham-O, Mr. Morrison continued working as a carpenter until 1961, when he took a job as a building inspector. He quit in 1967, when the Frisbee royalties eliminated the need for a day job.

Mr. Morrison kept seeking the next big fad in toys, but his Crazy Eight Bowling Balls and Popsicle Machine, both bought by Wham-O, never came close to matching his first success. In 1983, having divorced, he moved to an 80-acre ranch in Monroe, Utah, not far from where he was born. He bred race horses and operated the local airport and a motel.

A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Wham-O employee Ed Headrick reportedly believed himself to be the true father of the modern Frisbee. He re-designed the Pluto Platter in the 1960s, eliminating the no-longer-fashionable space theme and adding concentric grooves that reportedly stabilized the disc in flight, eliminating wobbles. Despite securing a patent on his version of the disc, he didn't earn royalties from Wham-O and went on to found the Professional Disc Golf Association.

Troubled by the profusion of myths circulating about the provenance of the world's first plastic flying disc, Mr. Morrison co-authored a book on the subject with Frisbee collector Phil Kennedy. "Flat Flip Flies Straight! True Origins of the Frisbee" was published in 2006.

Mr. Morrison never liked the Frisbee name. "He thought it didn't apply to anything," Kennedy recalled in an interview. "It was just a crazy name that didn't mean anything."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company