Wham-O Inc. changed the name of the Pluto Platter to Frisbee 50 years ago Sunday, flinging a new word into the cultural ether that still conjures images of carefree fun in the park and breezy days at the beach.
And to think Walter “Fred” Morrison, the inventor of the beloved disc, thought the new moniker would never fly.
“I thought Frisbee was a terrible name,” Morrison, now 87, said. “I thought it was insane.”
Frisbee instead became insanely popular, making the name as synonymous with flying discs as Google is with searching the Internet and Kleenex is with tissue.
But Wham-O doesn’t allow the Frisbee name to be thrown around indiscriminately. When the Emeryville-based company sees Frisbee used to describe discs made by other manufacturers, lawyers dispatch legal notices seeking to protect the trademarked term.
Frisbee’s name is a spin-off from a now-defunct Connecticut bakery, the Frisbie Pie Co. New England college students often tossed empty pie tins around for fun, a habit that led them to refer to the Pluto Platter as a “frisbie.”
Wham-O co-founders Rich Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin first obtained the marketing rights to Morrison’s invention in January 1957.
Less than six months later, Knerr made the fateful decision to embrace the nickname that the college kids had given the Pluto Platter. He evidently was unclear on how to spell frisbie, giving birth to a new word.
Head in the clouds
Morrison began experimenting with flying objects in his teens. He says he first tossed around a popcorn lid at a Thanksgiving gathering in 1937 and later graduated to cake pans.
When he first started to think of designing a flying disc, Morrison called it the “Whirlo-Way” in a tribute to the racehorse Whirlaway, which won the 1941 Triple Crown.
“All Fred was trying to do at the time was build a better flying cake pan,” said Phil Kennedy, who teamed up with Morrison to write “Flat Flip Flies Straight,” a book detailing the Frisbee’s history.
By the time Morrison finally scraped up enough money to develop a mold for his concept, there had been reports of a spacecraft crashing in Roswell, N.M. Morrison ended up calling his first line of discs “Flyin-Saucers.” After upgrading his design, Morrison then dubbed the disc the Pluto Platter.
Wham-O has been trying to capitalize on the Frisbee’s 50th anniversary by releasing collector’s editions of the early models. The privately held company says hundreds of millions of Frisbees have been sold, but won’t be any more specific than that.
Meanwhile, Morrison, who lives in Richfield, Utah, is still collecting royalties off a name he didn’t really like. “It just goes to show I am a bad judge of names,” he said.