The story of the Frisbee begins in a backyard during a Thanksgiving dinner in 1937. Fred Morrison and his girlfriend Lucile “Lu” Nay were tossing a popcorn-tin lid when they switched to a cake pan because it had better aerodynamics. Having some fun with the cake pan during a visit to the beach, they were offered a nickel from a passer-by who saw them and wanted to buy it. The rest is history.
Fred starting selling his flying cake pan at beaches, parks and toy fairs (though sales never took off) and improved the design until he had a plastic disc called the Flyin-Saucer and then the Pluto Platter. In 1957, when Hula Hoop maker Wham-O was looking for the next new toy that was not a doll or a soldier, they decided that Morrison’s flying disc was it. Reminiscent of a flying saucer, inexpensive, a family type of toy, the Pluto Platter just needed a new name. Wham-O selected Frisbee because it reminded them of a New England Frisbie pie.
The Frisbee story took me to a Schumpeter lecture from Dr. Timothy Taylor in a (very good) Teaching Company course on the history of economic thought. In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) explained that entrepreneurs propelled capitalism through creative destruction. New ideas destroyed the status quo but led to economic growth. The auto killed the buggy whip. The transistor replaced the vacuum tube. I am not sure what the Frisbee replaced.
However, we can say that the Frisbee has spawned Ultimate Frisbee (played by 5 million people according to the sport’s governing body), canine Frisbee and professional disc golf. As for sales, Business Insider says that more frisbees have been sold than baseballs, basketballs and footballs combined. In 2010, the total exceeded 200 million.
Sources and resources: I recommend a 2010 obituary in the Washington Post for the story of the Frisbee and of Fred Morrison, the entrepreneur who created it. For more on Schumpeter, econlib is always good for an economic biography as is Business Insider for its slide shows like this one on Ultimate Frisbee.
This post has been slightly edited and contains excerpts from a previous econlife.