Today, 13 January, is the date back in 1957 when the Wham-O toy company first began production of their plastic flying disk, or ‘Frisbee’, as they trademarked it.
The concept for the flying disk came about much earlier. While there are different tales regarding its invention, the most plausible story is that it came from the pie tins that the Frisbie Baking Company from Connecticut used to bake their pies in. The pies were popular with students at various New England colleges. Apart from enjoying the pies, they discovered that the empty pie tins could be tossed and caught, resulting in many hours of fun and games.
In 1948, Walter Morrison from Los Angeles created a plastic version of the flying disk that could be thrown more accurately than the pie tins. Morrison marketed his disk, which contained a specifically sloped design and thicker outer edge, as the ‘Pluto Platter’, and this became the blueprint for future flying disk designs. Rich Knerr and Spud Melin of the Wham-O company quickly saw the potential of Morrison’s invention and convinced him to sell them the rights to the design.
Shortly after Wham-O started producing their version of the flying disk, the Frisbie Pie Company closed down, and Wham-O named their disk the ‘Frisbee’, acknowledging the role the Frisbie pie tins played in the invention of their toy. Thanks to Wham-O’s clever marketing of the Frisbee disk, sales soared, and the toy even caught on as a serious sport. By 1964, Wham-O released the first professional version of the Frisbee, with better accuracy and more stable flight. The key innovation in the professional version was the introduction of raised concentric ridges, called the ‘Rings of Headrick’ after its inventor, Wham-O’s Ed Headrick.
Physically, the flight of the frisbee works very similar to a standard asymmetrical air foil, accelerating airflow over the disk resulting in a pressure difference causing a lifting force. The ‘Rings of Headrick’ help by causing the airflow to become turbulent as soon as it passes over the ridge of the disk, thus reducing flow separation. In addition to the lift caused by its shape, the torque created by the heavier edge of the spinning disk also has a gyroscopic effect, stabilizing the disk in flight. Higher rates of spin results in greater stability.
Minor adjustments to the shape of the disk can cause significant changes to the flight dynamics – something that can be utilised effectively in specific applications like disk golf where the aim is to cover a course and throw the disk into a basket – similar to sinking a put in golf. Disk golf players use different design disks for ‘putting’, ‘driving’ etc.
The Frisbee even gained scientific legitimacy when, in 1968, the US Navy spent a whopping $400 000 studying the flight of the frisbee in wind tunnels, following its flight with high speed cameras and performing advanced computer flight simulations. The project even included the development of a special frisbee launching machine. (The mind just boggles at all the potential conspiracy theories regarding UFO flight that this must have caused…)
Today the Frisbee trademark is owned by Mattell Toys. More than 100 million frisbees were sold by Wham-O prior to selling the toy to Mattel. Beyond this, many millions more flying disks were sold by other manufacturers, so one can only speculate how many flying disks have been sold since its invention more than 50 years ago.