Celebrating Wham-O’s ‘frisbee’ flying disk, a toy for all ages

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.

The flying disk of 'frisbee' is a truly age-defying toy, and can offer hours of fun to players of all ages.(© All Rights Reserved)
The flying disk of ‘frisbee’ is a truly age-defying toy, and can offer hours of fun to players of all ages.
(© All Rights Reserved)

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.

Creating sparks on Static Electricity Day

Today we celebrate Static Electricity Day – a day for some serious electricity fun.

Work up some static electricity (a balloon rubbed against cloth is a great source) and use it to get your hair to stand on end. Rub your feet on a carpet and generate some sparks between you and the person next to you. Cut small pieces of paper, rub a plastic ruler on your hair, and see the paper pieces magically fly into the air as it gets attracted to the electrically charged ruler.

Making paper pieces fly - the magic of static electricity.(© All Rights Reserved)
Making paper pieces fly – the magic of static electricity.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So how does it work? As two surfaces rub against each other, electrons are exchanged, moving from one surface to the other. The resultant mismatch of electrons means that the one object will have a negative charge, while the other will be positively charged. Doing this repeatedly (e.g. rapidly rubbing feet on a carpet, or a balloon on a cloth) can result in the build-up of a fairly large charge. If you have a significant positive or negative charge in your body, and you touch a metal object, the static electricity is rapidly discharged, creating a tingle, or even a small spark.

Of course static electricity is not all about fun and games. In industry, positive and negative charges are useful in applications such as spray painting and dust removal. Printers also use static electrical charges to attract ink or toner to paper.

Some of the most impressive, and dangerous, examples of static electricity in everyday life occur during an electrical storm, when huge electrical charges lead to the development of lightning – instant discharges of many thousands of volts – definitely not something to play with.

Here’s hoping you’ll have a great, positively charged Static Electricity Day – go on, create some sparks!