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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Does the name Wham-O ring a bell?

How about Whirlo-Way or Pluto Platter? Well, those were the two early 1950 names given perhaps the most famous... most simple toy ever invented... but it didn't take off (pun intended) right away. The inventor, World War II fighter pilot Fred Morrison, created the disc that he later licensed to Wham-O Manufacturing Company. When Wham-O marketed the Pluto Platter in 1957, they called it the Frisbee after an East Coast pie company who's plates had been used for just that purpose. And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of the story. Frisbee's sales soared (another pun...get it?)  into the hundreds of millions, and it became a counter-culture phenomenon, often seen in the hands of movie stars and famous personalities.

"It is impossible to fathom the impact Fred Morrison has had on the world through the invention of such a simple object..." said the executive director of the World Flying Disc Federation, a non-profit governing body for all competitive things Frisbee. (Aside: My brother-in-law was a card-carrying member #162 of the International Frisbee Assoc. in 1968... he showed me the card!  It shows you, among other things, he is pretty old.... and still a kid at heart,)

As a teen, Morrison had a fascination with flying disks, throwing popcorn lids and cake pans on the Santa Monica beach. One time, a stranger watching offered to buy his cake pan for a quarter. "At that time cake pans cost about a nickel," he wrote in his memoir... and a business was born, then interrupted and almost killed-off by World War II. His P-51 mustang was shot down over Italy in 1945 and he was a POW until the war's end.

Using the aerodynamic knowledge he acquired as a pilot, he refined his model and gave demonstrations at county fairs and stores selling his product. Often, amazed onlookers supposed the disk's unusual flight was caused by unseen wires. He became frustrated when purchasers couldn't get the same results he did because people just didn't know how to throw it. He began printing instructions on the bottom of each "Pluto Platter" which he manufactured, with little bumps, to simulate the "flying saucers from space" that had the public's attention at the time.

Tired and disappointed by a lack of consumer enthusiasm, he licensed the Pluto Platter  to Wham-O in 1957. It was Wham-O that came up with the Frisbee name. "I thought it was stupid," he said.  But it sold... and sold... and sold. And still does. I found seven in my house just today... four for throwing and three purchased as dog toys.

Morrison died this past week at age 90... but his Frisbee will live forever.

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