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The Frisbee files

Like American football and collegiate crew, the Frisbee—or at least its name—originated at Yale. It was 50 years ago this spring that a novelty company called Wham-O started mass production of the famous plastic disc that was called, at first, the “Pluto Platter.” But by the time the discs arrived at the Ivy League, the students already had a game called “Frisbie,” named after a pie tin, and theirs was the name that stuck.

Exactly when Yale students started tossing around tin pans made by the Frisbie Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, isn’t clear. Most histories of the Frisbee, as well as lists of “Connecticut Firsts,” put the date at about 1920. Students would fling the empty pie tins to each other as they crossed the campus and shout “Frisbie!” as a warning, like golfers shouting “Fore!”


Polk used a Wearever aluminum pan, but nobody shouted “Wearever!” across the lawns.

The Frisbie Pie Company was founded in 1871, so the 1920 date is plausible. However, the earliest dates backed by documentary testimony are somewhat later. There are two competing claims. In a February 1996 article, “Original Frisbie,” in this magazine, Sam Carr Polk '47JD wrote that his cousin taught him a pie-tin tossing game in Texas in the summer of 1946, and he brought it to New Haven in the fall. The game caught on, and pie pans were soon sailing around the campus. Polk used a Wearever aluminum pan, but nobody shouted “Wearever!” across the lawns, because students turned to the ubiquitous Frisbie pans instead.

An earlier claim comes from Stephen I. Zetterberg '42LLB, who wrote in a 1971 letter to the Yale Alumni Magazine that he started playing Frisbie in the Law School in 1939. He repeated the story in a letter to the New York Times in 1989; the Times gave it the headline, “The Pie Tin that Flew Round the World.” Zetterberg said he wrote to the Times to refute a claim by Middlebury College that they had invented the game. (Harvard and many other universities have also staked a claim.) He added, “Some years ago, I wrote about this in the Yale Law Report and received a call from a Mrs. Frisbie of Bridgeport, Conn., home of the Frisbie Pie Company, whose tins we threw, confirming that Yale students had started Frisbee throwing.”

Zetterberg’s account is the most persuasive to date. We now know, too, that Frisbie pie pans could fly. In the recent book Spinning Flight: Dynamics of Frisbees, Boomerangs, Samaras, and Skipping Stones, Ralph D. Lorenz reports that aerodynamic tests showed that Frisbie tins were indeed a good size and weight for throwing. “The deep lip … permitted the spin axis to remain stable for a flight of a few seconds,” said Lorenz.

After World War II, the new availability of plastics gave birth to the modern proto-Frisbee. In 1948, a Los Angeles inventor named Walter “Fred” Morrison, hoping to cash in on the rash of UFO sightings, came up with a disc he called the Flyin' Saucer. In 1955 he and his wife, Lucile, improved the design and renamed it the Pluto Platter. It caught the eye of the Wham-O toy company owners, who took out a patent on behalf of Morrison and began mass production in 1957.


In a 1957 New York Times article on fad toys, Gay Talese wrote, “Frisbee is strictly the nom de Ivy League.

Morrison said his invention was inspired by a popcorn can lid, not Yale or Frisbie pie pans. But perhaps because of them, in 1958 Wham-O changed the name to Frisbee. The plastic disc fad had caught on fast in the Ivy League in 1957—but nobody called the discs Pluto Platters. A May 13, 1957, Sports Illustrated item described “Flying Frisbees” in Princeton. (Fred R. Shapiro, author of the Yale Book of Quotations, found mention of a “World Frizby Championship” at Dartmouth even earlier, in 1954, featuring cookie tin lids.) In August 1957, Gay Talese, in a New York Times article on fad toys, wrote, “The Frisbee … is now marketed by half a dozen manufacturers under various names, including Flying Saucers, Scalos, Space Saucers or Wham-O Pluto-Platters. Frisbee is strictly the nom de Ivy League. “ A Yale Co-op ad in the Yale Daily News on May 10, 1957, touted the Space Saucer—a flying disc developed by a New Hampshire man named Bill Robes in the early 1950s. The saucer, said the ad, was very similar to the homegrown “Frisbie.” Talese, too, traced the name to the “Frisbee" Baking Company in Bridgeport. An official there told him that pie plate-pitching was so popular after World War II that “during that fad we lost about 5,000 tin pie plates.”

Richard Knerr, Wham-O’s co-founder, has given conflicting accounts of how he came to rename the Pluto Platter. In 2002, he told the Times that the name came from a comic strip called Mr. Frisbie. But in an interview quoted in the 1974 book Frisbee by Stancil E. D. Johnson, Knerr had said that the name came from a promotional trip he took through Ivy League campuses, when he heard Harvard students talk about Frisbie-ing.

Amid all the conflicting claims and contradictory testimony, one published account can be filed under “much too good to be true." In a 1957 letter to the New York Times, Tom E. Cohen '57 traced the flying disc back to 1827. It was then, wrote Cohen with tongue in cheek, that a Yale student, annoyed about having to attend chapel on a fine Sunday morning, snatched up a collection plate and skimmed it two hundred yards across the Green. The name of this supposed student? Elihu Frisbie.  


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