When serendipity and persistence collide
On Tuesday February 11, 2010, Walter Frederick “Fred” Morrison passed away. Most people have never heard of Fred Morrison, but his life is one permeated with serendipity, service to the nation, business success, and bringing happiness to millions.
In 1937, at the age of 17, Fred attended a picnic held by the family of his girlfriend, Lucile (Lu) Nay. The young couple grew bored with the adults, found a popcorn jar lid, went outside, and began to toss it back and forth. It wasn’t long before Fred and Lu noticed that the popcorn lid was easily dented and less likely to glide effortlessly between them.
Weeks later, at Fred’s home they experimented with Fred’s mother’s metal pie tins and found them to be far more durable. The happy couple would bring this pie tin with them to the beach as a form of entertainment. One day, as they were tossing the pie tin with one another, a fellow beach goer offered to buy the pie tin for twenty-five cents. Fred and Lu wondered what the cost of these pie tins were and, when they discovered that they only cost five cents, they decided to begin a business together called “Flyin’ Cake Pans.” They ran their business re-selling pie tins on the beach each weekend until World War II began, when Fred joined the Army Air Corps flying P-47 Thunderbolts.
Shot down while flying a mission over Italy, Fred was captured by the Germans and became a prisoner of war at the infamous “Stalag 13,” years later depicted in the comedic TV series, “Hogan’s Heroes.” Conditions in the camp were very poor, especially as the war neared its ending. To keep himself focused and able to deal with the circumstances of being a prisoner of war, Fred reflected on the knowledge he had gained about aerodynamics, physics and engineering while training to become a fighter pilot and how it related to his gliding pie tins.
After the war, Fred and Lu were married and settled down in Southern California. Fred went to work as a carpenter, a short while later hired by a fellow Veteran, Warren Franscioni. In a 1973 letter, Warren reflected on his first meeting with Fred.
“I first met Fred Morrison in late 1947. Fred was a struggling World War II Veteran trying to build a home in San Luis Obispo, California. At that time, I was attempting to establish a bottle gas business with a partner, George Davis, in San Luis Obispo. We needed someone to assist in the installation of home heating appliances, and Fred went to work for us."
All the while, Fred kept drawing sketch designs during his free time for the better cake pan design he had envisioned while being a prisoner of war. Over the years he created prototypes, tested them, and continued to iterate his design along the way. His first prototype was called the Whirlo-Way.
In 1948, Warren Franscioni became an investor in Fred’s invention, and the two formed a company called Partners in Plastic, or Pipco. They contracted with Southern California Plastic Co. to manufacture plastic “Flyin' Saucers” for about 25 cents each, offering to sell them for one dollar. No one knew quite what to do with plastic disks unless the possibilities were demonstrated in person, so Fred and Warren traveled to weekend fairs and carnivals to demonstrating the fun that could be have with them. Despite these demonstrations sales sagged and the two parted ways.
Fred did not quit, continuing to refine his invention. Then in a moment of serendipity, when a series of alleged UFO sightings launched a bit of a national craze in the mid-1950’s, Fred seized the opportunity and re-branded his invention, launching the “Pluto Platter” flying disc. He began to sell to outlets like Woolworth and Disneyland. In 1957, Fred Morrison sold the rights to the “Pluto Platter” to Wham-o-Toys. Later that year, Wham-o changed the name of the “Pluto Platter” to the Frisbee, but how they came up with that iconic name is an entirely different story of serendipity.
One century prior to the launch of the Frisbee, another part of this story unbeknownst to Fred and Wham-o had unfolded. A boy by the name of William Russell Frisbie was born on December 28, 1848, in Wallingford Connecticut on the outskirts of New Haven, home to Yale University. William grew up loving to bake with his mom. He began baking in earnest at the age of 23 where he made fresh pies from his home in Connecticut. His pies became so popular that a business was born. The Frisbie Pie Company expanded rapidly.
After William Frisbie passed away in 1903, his son Joseph took over the company and scaled the business significantly. By the early 1920’s the Frisbie Pie Company was producing 50,000 pies per day, and had a fleet of over 200 trucks to distribute these pies to its customers.
As serendipity would have it, the pies were not what made Frisbie so popular, but rather the pie tins. Frisbie employees flung the heavy metal pie tins to one another for fun during their lunch break. Nearby schoolchildren tossed the pie tins around and yelled “Frisbie” so the spinning tins wouldn’t hit them. The game made its way to nearby college campuses.
Yale students began to toss the tins around on the Yale college campus. Word spread quickly. California-based Wham-O, which sold a similarly-shaped plastic disc called a Pluto Platter invented by Fred Morrison, found out the game had become popular and began selling it as a Frisbee, changing the name slightly to avoid trademark issues. As of 2014, nearly 350 million Frisbees have been sold worldwide.