Where the Frisbee First Flew
The Untold Story of the Flying Disc's Origin 50 Years Ago in SLO
BY JEFF McMAHON
Two men held a circle of plastic over a heater in a San Luis Obispo garage in 1948, trying to mold a lip onto the disc's down-turned edge. One of those men would be hailed as the inventor of the Frisbee. The other would die unknown, just as he began to fight for a share of the credit and millions in royalties the Frisbee generated.
The First to Fly
Walter Frederick Morrison came to Warren Franscioni in 1947, looking for work. Both men had been Army Air Corps pilots in World War II. Maj. Franscioni served with the Air Transport Service in India and China; Lt. Morrison flew a fighter in 58 missions over Italy before being shot down and held in Stalag 13, Germany's infamous prison camp.
Franscioni's parents lived in Paso Robles, where his father had been mayor, so he settled after the war in San Luis Obispo. He founded a butane company as his father had done in Paso. He built a home on Conejo Avenue, in a neighborhood developing near San Luis High School, and he opened the Franscioni and Davis Butane Co. office at 884 Broad St., across Broad from Mission College Prep.
"I first met Fred Morrison in late 1947," Franscioni wrote in a 1973 letter. "He was a struggling World War II veteran trying to build a home for his family at Baywood Park, a developing residential area just outside San Luis Obispo, California."At that time, I was attempting to establish a bottle gas business with a partner, George Davis, in San Luis Obispo. We needed someone to assist in the installation of home heating appliances, and Fred went to work for us."
The bottled gas business moved too slowly in postwar SLO to sustain three men and their families. So Franscioni and Morrison dreamed up an enterprise on the side.
For decades kids had played catch with metal pie tins. The sport grew in popularity during the Depression, and soldiers spread it across the country during the war.
The game had a few drawbacks. The tins made a shrill noise, and if you didn't catch them just right, they stung. After a few crash landings they could crack or develop sharp edges that cut fingers. Morrison and Franscioni thought of casting them in plastic, a material proliferated by wartime industry. Morrison took credit for the idea in later interviews, but Franscioni said they thought of it together.
"I do know that when we compared some of our past experiences at sailing things, it came out plastics," Franscioni wrote.
It seems like a simple idea today, but Morrison and Franscioni broke new ground. And after 49 years of improvements, the Frisbee has diverged little from their first plastic interpretation of a pie tin.
"People were throwing paint can lids and paper plates and pie pans throughout history, since they were invented," said Victor Malafronte, a Frisbee historian in Alameda. "The
first plastic disc was that Flyin' Saucer in 1948."
Morrison and Franscioni used a lathe to carve their first model out of Tenite, a hard cellulose material now used in toothbrush handles and eyeglass frames. That disc confirmed the aerodynamics of the toy, but it shattered on landing.
"I tackled the job of working up a design that would transform the pie-tin shape into what we believed would be the best configuration of an injection-molded Flyin' Saucer," Franscioni wrote. Franscioni's daughter, Coszette Eneix, remembers her father and Morrison working in the basement of their Conejo Avenue home.
"I remember one time--I was like 5--I remember standing in the basement downstairs, and I remember over the water heater they were trying to mold this plastic thing to try to get a lip on it," Eneix said.
Newspapers had coined the term "flying saucer" less than a year earlier when a pilot reported seeing disc-shaped objects skipping through the air above the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. The Roswell incident in June 1947 fueled the flying saucer craze. Witnesses in Roswell, N.M., reported seeing the bodies of aliens at a UFO crash site.
Franscioni and Morrison named the new toy to capitalize on the publicity.
"Hundreds of flying saucers are scheduled to invade San Luis Obispo in the near future," the Telegram-Tribune reported in 1948. "Two local men, pooling resources after the words
'flying saucers' shocked the world a year ago, have invented a new, patented plastic toy shaped like the originally reported saucer."
The Saucer Crash
People have purchased more than 200 million Frisbees in the last 50 years, Malafronte estimates, more than baseballs, footballs, and basketballs combined. Those booming sales, however, began with a whimper. In 1948, people didn't know what to make of the Flyin' Saucer.
Morrison and Franscioni formed a company called Partners in Plastic, or Pipco, based in SLO. They contracted with Southern California Plastic Co. in Glendale to manufacture Flyin' Saucers for about 25 cents each. They sold them for $1 through outlets like Woolworth and Disneyland.
"We soon found the item was a dead issue on the counter," Franscioni wrote, "which prompted our offer to demonstrate in the store. Woolworth put Fred and me in a cage to protect the customers. It worked, but not for long. We soon realized the only place to demonstrate was outdoors."
Morrison and his wife traveled to county fairs to hawk the flying disc. Franscioni sometimes joined them, Eneix said, but he usually remained in SLO, handling national sales and keeping Pipco's books. The demonstrations won people's attention. They hadn't seen anything fly like the disc, which remained aloft long after gravity would have pulled a ball back to earth.
Some observers thought the disc followed an invisible wire, and Morrison capitalized on that notion. He offered the disc for free if customers paid $1 for the invisible wire.
Teaching people how to throw the disc became another challenge. Americans seem born to the art of Frisbee throwing today, but it required a new skill in 1948.
"By running through the instructions you will see that we repeatedly point out that an easy smooth snap of the wrist is all that is necessary," Franscioni wrote.
Flyin' Saucers came with directions urging people not to throw the discs too hard or hold them too tight, and to launch them "in exactly the same manner as sailing your hat onto a hook." Franscioni and Morrison's early marketing efforts occasionally backfired. A Disneyland employee demonstrating the Flyin' Saucer accidentally overshot a fence and hit a woman in the head. She sued, and Disney halted its demonstrations.
Then Morrison and Franscioni struck a deal with Al Capp, who agreed to include the Flyin' Saucer in his "Li'l Abner" cartoon strip. That strip appeared in national newspapers sometime around 1950. Franscioni and Morrison printed "Li'l Abner" inserts and packaged them with their Flyin' Saucers to capitalize on the publicity.
The inserts infuriated Capp, who felt they exceeded the terms of their agreement. Capp threatened to sue and demanded $5,000 in compensation. "I was really hurt. How could Li'l Abner do this to my daddy?" Eneix said. "That was a hunk of change that put them down. That was quite a bit of money back then."
Franscioni and Morrison were already struggling to meet the cost of casting the original dies for the Flyin' Saucer. The Capp payoff devastated Pipco. Franscioni borrowed $2,500 from his mother and $2,500 from his mother-in-law, Eneix said, and the demise of the Flyin' Saucer began. Eneix and her sister went door to door in SLO selling the discs for 25 cents. Today, collectors will pay $500 for an original Pipco Flyin' Saucer.
The Plot Thickens
The Franscioni and Davis Butane Co. crashed at about the same time as Pipco. In 1950, Walter Franscioni had to sell the Conejo Avenue home where the Frisbee was born. He moved to Greenville, worked as a trucker, and applied for reactivation in the Air Force.
"I remember us losing our home and how hard that was," Eneix said. "Korea was happening then, and my father then applied for being recalled back into the service, but he continued trying to get the Flyin' Saucer thing to go."
The Air Force moved the Franscionis to South Dakota in 1952. Morrison moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a building inspector, and the inventors of the Flyin' Saucer drifted apart. Southern California Plastic Co. continued to produce the discs, and Morrison continued to sell them.
Eneix keeps folders full of yellowing letters and old business records to document what happened next. Some of those records show that Morrison began manufacturing his own flying disc on the side.
Morrison set up a new company, American Trends, redesigned the disc to make it look more like a flying saucer, and called it the Pluto Platter. Morrison began selling the Pluto Platter while still accepting sales commissions on the Flyin' Saucer, according to Ed Kennedy, the president of Southern California Plastic Co.
"We had just found out that Fred Morrison had another die built on the Flyin' Saucer and was merchandising the product under the name of Pluto's Platter," Kennedy wrote in a 1957 letter to Franscioni. "During the time that he was having the saucer made, he was also accepting sales commissions from the company here."
Kennedy accused Morrison of trying to steal Flyin' Saucer accounts by offering Pluto Platters at a lower cost.
"In my opinion, Fred acted completely unfairly on this entire thing," Kennedy wrote, "and we certainly will never do business with him again."
Southern California Plastic Co. severed its relationship with Morrison and contacted a patent attorney. The question of patent violations never went to court, however, and has never been resolved.
The Wham-O Frisbee
Morrison was demonstrating his Pluto Platter in a Los Angeles parking lot in 1955 when Rich Knerr and Spud Melin spotted the unusual flying object.
Knerr and Melin had founded their own toy company back in 1948, the year Franscioni and Morrison were developing the Flyin' Saucer. Knerr and Melin had one product, a wooden slingshot. They named their company for the sound the slingshot's pellets made on impact--Wham-O.
Morrison signed a contract with Wham-O, and Knerr and Melin sold the Pluto Platter with a marketing expertise Morrison and Franscioni never showed. Knerr came up with the new name for the disc. Knerr was visiting East Coast college campuses in the mid-1950s, giving away Pluto Platters to seed market demand. At Yale he encountered students tossing metal pie tins and yelling "Frisbie!" the way golfers yell "Fore!"
Historians have traced that tradition to a Bridgeport, Conn., baker named William Russell Frisbie. In 1871 Frisbie moved to Bridgeport to manage the local branch of the Olds Baking Co. He eventually bought the bakery and renamed it Frisbie Pie Co. Frisbee historian Malafronte believes truck drivers for the company were the first to toss Frisbie Pie tins on the
loading docks during idle times. The tins bore the words "Frisbie's Pies" and had six small holes in the center, in a star pattern, that hummed when the tin flew.
The sport moved to Eastern colleges, where students shouted "Frisbie!" to warn people of incoming pie tins. A sport developed and took on the name "Frisbie-ing." Knerr took the word home to Wham-O, misspelled it "Frisbee," and registered it as a trademark. In 1958, Morrison's Pluto Platter became the Wham-O Frisbee.
Southern California Plastic Co. continued to make Flyin' Saucers for Disneyland and a few other outlets. It handled sales and mailed royalty checks to Franscioni until the mid-1960s, when he headed to Vietnam.
The Bitter Toy
Many American homes have housed a Frisbee, but Coszette Eneix's home is not among them.
"Every time I see a Frisbee I just want to cringe," she said. "I get angry inside. It shouldn't be called Frisbee. It isn't Frisbee. How come they're calling it Frisbee? That's not
right. It's Flyin' Saucer."
Eneix hasn't decided whether to use her files of yellowing papers in a lawsuit or in a book, but she wants justice for her father. "I want it in the history books, as it comes down, that
my father was there, not Fred Morrison alone," she said.
"When you read about the history of the Frisbee, you always hear Fred Morrison. Fred Morrison did this. Fred Morrison did that. Bullshit. Excuse my language. Bullshit. It was Warren Franscioni and Fred Morrison. It was a partnership. I think they should have equal billing."
The International Frisbee Hall of Fame in Lake Linden, Mich., reserves its primary listing for Morrison.
"Fred Morrison, Inventor of the Frisbee," it says. "Walter F. (Fred) Morrison has provided pleasure to millions of people throughout the world. He was the first person to envision the creation of a plastic disc to be used as a substitute for a ball in a game of catch."
Wham-O went on to market the Hula-Hoop, the Super Ball, the Water Wiggle, and other toys, but Frisbee remained its most profitable product. In 1977, 20 years after Wham-O began selling Frisbees, it generated up to 50 percent of the company's annual sales. At the time, Wham-O estimated it had sold 100 million flying discs. Morrison told the Los Angeles Times in 1977 he had made about $1 million in royalties. Nearly all written histories of the Frisbee attribute its invention to Morrison. Stancil E.D. Johnson, a Pacific Grove psychiatrist, may have been the first to mention Warren Franscioni in a footnote in his 1975 book, "Frisbee."
Johnson heard about Franscioni from Ed Kennedy, the president of the Southern California Plastic Co. In 1973, Johnson contacted Franscioni, who was then an Air Force colonel stationed in Oslo, Norway. He asked Franscioni to write down his memories of the flying disc's origin.
Franscioni sent Johnson one letter in August 1973. "I have had time to evaluate my initial concern about whether your book might interfere in any future legal proceedings about the subject," Franscioni wrote. "I have come to the conclusion that your book, if based upon the facts, would not."
Franscioni argues that he designed the first Flyin' Saucer, not Morrison, that he paid for the initial mold with his own money, and that the two men jointly developed the idea of casting it in plastic.
Franscioni began a second letter to Johnson in 1974, but he never completed it. He died of a heart attack at age 57.
"Fred Morrison never wanted to admit this," Johnson said. "Franscioni died and never was able to come back and get his share of the profits."
Franscioni might have acted earlier. Ed Kennedy urged him to take legal action against Morrison as early as 1957.
"Other people were asking my father to do something--stop him, sue him, stop him," Eneix said, "but we were in South Dakota. My father was getting his career going again as an officer in the Air Force, and that was taking a lot of his time. And I think my mom was leery of putting more money into this thing."
In 1957, the Frisbee had not yet made its millions. The rights to the toy hardly seemed worth the cost of a lawsuit.
"There was a lot of disappointment in the '50s, and they were hurt, really hurt," Eneix said. "So we all started quieting down and not talking about it. That's what we do in my family. We don't talk about it. Then we didn't fly the Flyin' Saucer much anymore on picnics. It was too painful to keep remembering it because we were losing it."
The Silent Inventor
Morrison, 77, now calls himself "Walt" and lives near Monroe, Utah, a town of 1,700 people in the Sevier River valley. He owned a motel there and operated it with his third wife until he retired three years ago. Morrison has an old pickup truck, but he rarely drives it into town.
"He lives in a house in the country and seems to enjoy life," said Mark Fullenbaugh, publisher of the Richfield Reaper. "I haven't seen him in person in about six months. You
don't see him out much, so I can't tell you much more than that about him."
Morrison declined to be interviewed for this story.
"Well, I'd like to be a nice guy and say yes, but I'm so tired of this shit," Morrison said.
"It's been done so many times, so many ways, that I just don't do it anymore. I'm an old man now and I just haven't got time for this. I want to just sit back in my chair and sleep."
Morrison has always been "cagey" about the facts of the Frisbee's birth, according to Malafronte, who met Morrison at Frisbee tournaments. "I had asked Fred about his partner, and he owns up to it," Malafronte said. "The problem is, I think Fred has a lot of stuff he can lose and nothing to gain by talking."
Meanwhile, Mattel Corp. is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Frisbee this year, even though the plastic flying disc turns 50 next year. Mattel, the world's largest toy company, bought Wham-O in 1994. It dates the Frisbee's official birth as 1957, when Wham-O first marketed Morrison's Pluto Platter.
Mattel has no knowledge of plastic flying discs that may have existed before 1957, said Mattel spokeswoman Sara Rosales, nor of their inventors.
Jeff McMahon hurls amazing whirling adjectives for New Times.
History of Frisbee
The Frisbie Pie Company
In 1871, in the wake of the Civil War, William Russell Frisbie moved fromBransford, Connecticut, where his father, Russell, had operated a successful grist mill, to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Hired to manage a new bakery, a branch of the Olds Baking Company of New Haven, he soon bought it out right and named it the Frisbie Pie Company (363 Kossuth Street). W.R. died in1903 and his son, Joseph P, manned the ovens until his death in 1940. Under his direction the small company grew from six to two hundred and fifty routes, and shops were opened in Hartford, Connecticut; Poughkeepsie, New York and Providence, Rhode Island. His widow, Marian Rose Frisbie, and long-timeplant manager, Joseph J. Vaughn, baked on until August 1958 and reached a zenith production of 80,000 pies per day in 1956. In this otherwise simple baking operation we find the origin of the earliest Frisbee! Now the company offered a variety of bakery goodies, including pies and cookies, and therein resides the roots of the controversy. Forthere are two crusty schools concerning Frisbee's origins: the Pie-Tin Schooland the Cookie- Tin School, each camp holding devoutly to its own argument.
The Pie-Tin School
The pie-tin people claim Yale students bought Frisbie's pies (undoubtedly a treat in themselves) and tossed the prototype all over Eli's campus. These early throwers would exclaim "Frisbie" to signal the catcher. And well they might, for a tin Frisbee is something else again to catch.
The Cookie-Tin School
Now the cookie tin people agree on these details save one: they insist that the true, original prototype was the cookie-tin lid that held in the goodness of Frisbie's sugar cookies.
Walter Frederick Morrison
Walter Frederick Morrison, the son of the inventor of the automobile sealed - beamheadlight, returned home after World War II, finishing his European campaign as a prisoner in the now famous Stalag 13. He worked for a while as a carpenter, but like his father, he had an inventive mind. The time was 1948; flying saucers from outer space were beginning to capture people's imagination. Why not turn the concern into a craze? As a Utah youth, he scaled pie tins, paint-can lids, and the like. He remembered those pleasurable moments and his mind turned to perfecting the pie tin into a commercial product. First, he welded a steel ring inside the rim to improve the plate's stability, but without success. In a surge of serendipity, he adopted the child of the times -- plastic. Plastic was the ideal stuff for Frisbee. It seems impossible to imagine anything better. And, perhaps, Frisbee is plastic's finest form.
Initially, Morrison used a butyl stearate blend. He recalls: "It worked fine as long as the sun was up, but then the thing got brittle, and if you didn't catch it, it would break into a million pieces!"
The original Morrison's Flyin' Saucer was his accurate vane model, named for the six topside curved spoilers (vanes). They were designed to improve lift by facilitating the Bernoulli principle, which they didn't. Curiously, the spoilers were on backwards; that is, they would theoretically work only for a counterclockwise spin.
The Pluto Platter
In 1951 Morrison vastly improved his model and the design, unchanged, served as Wham-O's legendary Pluto Platter. The Pluto Platter is the basic design for all succeeding Frisbees. Credit Fred Morrison for his farsightedness. The outer third of the disc, his fundamental design feature, is appropriately named the Morrison Slope. The Morrison
Pluto Platter has the first true cupola (cabin in Morrison'sterms). The UFO influence colored the design. The cabin had portholes! The planet ring hinted at an extraterrestrial origin.
Rich Knerr and A.K."Spud" Melin fresh from the University of Southern California were making slingshots in their fledgling toy company when they first saw Morrison's flying saucers whizzing around southern California beaches. They were interested in this exciting simple thing that employed the basic principles of physics, primary ingredients in all their products to come. In late 1955, they cornered Morrison while he was hawking his wares and tying up traffic on Broadway in downtown LosAngeles. Just before he was asked to break it up by the local gendarmerie, the dynamic duo invited him to their San Gabriel factory and made him aproposition.
Thus, fling saucers landed on the West Coast in San Gabriel, and on January 13, 1957, they began to fly out from a production line that has since sent over one hundred million sailing all over the globe.
"At first the saucers had trouble catching on," Rich Knerr reminisces," but we were confident they were good, so we sprinkled them in different parts of the country to prime the market." On a trip to the campuses of the Ivy League, Knerr first heard the term "Frisbee." Harvard students said they'd tossed pie tins about for years, and called it Frisbie-ing. Knerr liked the terms Frisbie and Frisbie-ing, so he borrowed them. Having no idea of the historical origins, he spelled the saucer "Frisbee", phonetically correct, but one vowel away from the Frisbie Pie Company.
Utility Patent for the Wham-O Frisbee
Edward E. Headrick 1967
In 1967 Mr. Headrick was issued a patent for his invention from the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). There were 4 documents on file for this patent. The drawing specification sheet of the patent has been reproduced on parchment paper, matted and ready to install into an 8" x 10" frame. The other 3 sheets reproduced from the USPTO documents include 1 additional drawing sheet and 2 pages which describe the scope of his invention in formal terms...
"A saucer shaped throwing implement. A series of concentric discontinuities are provided adjacent the rim on the convex side of the implement. The discontinuities provided on the convex side of the implement exert an interfering effect on the air flow over the implement and create a turbulent unseparated boundary layer over the top of the implement reducing aerodynamic drag"...