Walter Frederick Morrison, the inventor of the plastic flying discs that eventually became known as the Frisbee, died at his Utah home on Tuesday. He was 90 and is survived by three children.
For decades, Morrison's creation has been an integral part of American life. Sure, there have been other flying toys, like the Aerobie or the Flip N Flyer, but even these seem less like competitors and more like slightly-modified versions of the original toy, sort of like weird second cousins. Frisbees, whose sales have passed 200 million units, are as American as baseball, apple pie, or fireworks on the Fourth of July.
The original flying disc that Morrison and his girlfriend (and future wife) Lu Nay threw back and forth at a family picnic in 1937 was the cap to a popcorn tin, but they soon moved on to cake pans. Before long, they were selling "Flying Cake Pans" to beach goers in Santa Monica, Calif.
When World War II came, Morrison signed up, pursuing his applied aerodynamics studies in the cockpit of a P-47 Thunderbolt bomber. Shot down over Italy, he was held as a prisoner of war. When the war ended, he returned home and, with fellow pilot Warren Franscioni, modified his original flying disk design and began producing the toys with a miraculous new material: plastic. Following the space-age theme and playing into the public's fascination with UFOs, the pair renamed the product the "Flyin' Saucer" and hawked them at local fairs. In 1955, Morrison changed the name one more time, to the "Pluto Platter."
When Morrison was throwing cake pans at his wife, Yale students were throwing heavy pie pans at each other. The Frisbie Pie Company, a Connecticut bakery, sold its wares to Yale, where students discovered that the metal pie tins made great projectiles. As they hurled the pans at each others heads, they would yell "Frisbie" as a warning. By the time Morrison's invention started to catch the country's attention, the "frisbie" was already building a fan base on the East coast.
In 1957, Morrison sold the Pluto Platter to Wham-O, a toy company that was trying to get into sporting equipment. Wham-O mixed Morrison's safe design with the popular Frisbie name, creating "Frisbees," which were spelled differently in order to avoid copyright infringement. And so a legendary toy was born.
Morrison's unique contribution to American culture has been justifiably celebrated: In Utah, the Walter Frederick Morrison Disk Golf Course bears his name, and the Utah House Representative Kay McIff eulogized him after his death. But the inventor's greatest legacy remains a simple plastic toy -- and the millions of people it has delighted.
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