On this day in history, Jan. 23, 1957, Wham-O produces first Frisbees, reshaping leisure, sport

On this day in history, Jan. 23, 1957, Wham-O produces first Frisbees, reshaping leisure, sport

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Frat-house frolics became a national obsession when Wham-O Manufacturing Co. of California began producing the Pluto Platter — soon renamed the Frisbee — on this day in history, Jan. 23, 1957. 

“The Frisbee started off as nothing more than a container that carried pies,” reported University of Southern California online engineering publication Illumin Magazine, which analyzed the physics and history of the toy.

“However, through the ingenuity of some college students, the inventiveness of Fred Morrison, and the marketing savvy of the Wham-O Manufacturing Company, it eventually became an immensely popular and internationally recognized toy.”

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Two USC alums, Arthur “Spud” Mellin and Richard Knerr, created Wham-O. They are also known for popularizing the Hula-Hoop. 

The origin of the Frisbee dates back decades before Wham-O arrived on the scene. 

The toy’s odd history is a testament to the ability of Americans to harvest success from seemingly mundane opportunity. 

Rachel McCord is seen playing Frisbee on July 30, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. The original Frisbee, called the Flying Saucer, was introduced in 1948 by Southern California entrepreneur Fred Morrison. 

Rachel McCord is seen playing Frisbee on July 30, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. The original Frisbee, called the Flying Saucer, was introduced in 1948 by Southern California entrepreneur Fred Morrison.  (TSM/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

“The Frisbee story starts in college,” writes the National Museum of Play, which inducted the plastic surf-and-sand flying disc into its Toy Hall of Fame in 1988.

“Late 19th-century students at Yale and other New England universities played catch with pie plates … made by the nearby Frisbie Baking Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. They yelled ‘Frisbie!’ to warn passersby away from the spinning discs.”

“Late 19th-century students at Yale played catch with pie plates … made by the nearby Frisbie Baking Company.” — National Museum of Play

The activity spread to campuses and beaches around the country. 

California entrepreneur Walter Frederick Morrison was struck by the idea of marketing flying discs in 1937 when, according to industry lore, somebody at a beach in Santa Barbara offered him 25 cents for a pie plate that he was flinging around with his wife-to-be Lucille.

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Pie pans at the time cost only 5 cents, according to a history of the invention in The Saturday Evening Post. 

Morrison immediately saw the profit potential.

World War II, however, interrupted his plans.

“Morrison served as an Army Air Force fighter pilot,” according to The Saturday Evening Post account. 

A dog grabs a Frisbee at the beach of La Grande Plage in Biarritz, southwestern France, on Oct. 18, 2022.

A dog grabs a Frisbee at the beach of La Grande Plage in Biarritz, southwestern France, on Oct. 18, 2022. (GAIZKA IROZ/AFP via Getty Images)

“His P-47 Thunderbolt was shot down over Italy and he was held as a POW for over a month, but he survived. After the war ended and he returned home, Morrison’s thoughts turned back to his homemade flyer.”

His experience as a pilot fueled his knowledge and interest in aerodynamics. 

He began work to maximize the potential flying distance of the toy. 

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The nation, meanwhile, was gripped after World War II by UFO fever. It began when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold claims to have seen flying saucers over Washington state in 1947.  

“Arnold reported seeing nine discrete flying objects zipping about the mountain peaks,” reports the website of Foreign Policy magazine. 

California entrepreneur Walter Frederick Morrison was struck by the idea to market flying discs in 1937.

“He described them as silvery or metallic, fast, and appearing to be intelligently controlled … When he landed, he told his colleagues. Then he told the press. Arnold’s sighting was followed by a series of copycat sightings.”

The first now-famous reports of flying saucers in Roswell, New Mexico came just weeks after the sightings by Arnold.

A group of protesters march in front of the General Accounting Office (GAO) in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about an exam being conducted by the GAO for documents about a weather balloon crash at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The protesters believe the balloon was a crashed UFO. 

A group of protesters march in front of the General Accounting Office (GAO) in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about an exam being conducted by the GAO for documents about a weather balloon crash at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The protesters believe the balloon was a crashed UFO.  (JOSHUA ROBERTS/AFP via Getty Images)

Morrison introduced his new toy in 1948 and dubbed it — yes, the Flying Saucer. 

“Wham-O founders Arthur ‘Spud’ Melin and Richard Knerr … bought rights to the toy in 1955, and renamed it ‘Frisbee’ in 1958,” writes the Museum of Play.  

Wham-O fueled the popularity of the Frisbee with a brilliant marketing effort that turned toy into sport.

“Sales soared, reaching 100 million before Mattel bought out Wham-O. Early in the 1960s, people treated the flying disc as a counterculture sport.”

Wham-O fueled the popularity of the Frisbee with a brilliant marketing effort that turned toy into sport. 

“The early years of flying disc play were dominated by the influence of the International Frisbee Association, which was a promotional arm of Wham-O Manufacturing Company,” reports the World Flying Disc Federation — the existence of which alone is proof of the product’s success. 

Team Xi'an Physical Education University V7 (in blue shirt) competes against Team Xi'an Terra-Cotta Warriors-RJM in the opener of China's first National Ultimate Frisbee League on Aug. 6, 2022, in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.

Team Xi’an Physical Education University V7 (in blue shirt) competes against Team Xi’an Terra-Cotta Warriors-RJM in the opener of China’s first National Ultimate Frisbee League on Aug. 6, 2022, in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. (Zhang Yichen/China News Service via Getty Images)

The organization includes 103 member associations, representing flying disc sports, including Ultimate Frisbee and beach golf, and the sports’ athletes, in more than 100 countries, according to its website. 

Rutgers and Princeton played the first intercollegiate Ultimate Frisbee competition on Nov. 6, 1972 — 103 years to the day after the same two New Jersey schools played the first college football game.

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Some toy industry sources estimate that more Frisbees have been sold than there are residents of the United States today, and that more than 90% of Americans have thrown around a Frisbee at some point. That would make it the most popular participation activity in the nation. 

China appears to be the next frontier for Frisbee. 

Disc sports have skyrocketed in popularity in the Communist nation in recent years. 

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“The next two years will be the rapid growth stage of China’s Frisbee industry,” Frisbee expert Xue Zhixing told China Daily, the Chinese government’s official English-language news outlet, in August. 

“The supply side, such as sports fields and Frisbee-related products, should be fully prepared, and primary and secondary schools and universities are expected to be the possible future highland for the industry.”

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