Above: Fred Morrison, inventor of the Pluto Platter, took his disc's association with aliens very seriously.
Pie! Ancient Greeks! Space Aliens! College Students!
People have been throwing things at each other for fun and target practice since before there were words for those things. Beginning with Neanderthals and their prize rocks, humankind has progressed at a rapid pace to achieve glory in the form of a throwable object: no, not lawn darts. It is...the one, the only, the flying disc!
We imagine that if you’ve ended up here on our blog, you have heard of, seen, maybe even tossed one of these magical devices. If you haven’t, you should, but regardless, they look a bit like this...
This is a disc.
...and are commonly used in parks, on beaches, and on any number of sports fields around the world as a fun tossing object and/or the object of the game of ultimate (see this Wikipedia link for "ultimate frisbee", a rapidly-growing competitive team sport.
But where did these flying discs (often called frisbees, for reasons to be explained later in the article) come from?
Unlike balls, which probably followed rocks in the sporting-goods lineage once people found out there was a way to break fewer toes playing soccer, discs aren’t quite so prevalent in nature. We don’t have a way to find out who the first disc-thrower was, and it may have been a dinosaur, but we do know that by the 8th century BC, the Ancient Greeks were tossing around discuses. These look a bit like our modern discs, in that they’re round and mostly flat, but throwing them at your pal takes an aggressive turn when you learn they were once made of stone. So a) the Ancient Greeks were probably super ripped, and b) modern Ultimate players, rejoice that you don’t have to hit the gym more often.
Elusive college ultimate players celebrate not going to the gym.
The Greeks were disc-trendsetters, but only to a certain extent. They established that round flat things fly alright, and put their disc in the Olympics (“Soon,” says ultimate). And there it remained, content in the track-and-field wheelhouse of athletes who don’t want to run much.
So the disc faded into relative obscurity until the new batch of wildly innovative humans came along: the elusive, mysterious, unpredictable bored American college student of 1950s New England, here to pick up the Grecian mantle with some help from one guy in San Francisco.
These trendsetters did not invent a new disc, but they took innovation into their own hands by continuing the great human tradition of throwing things at each other. Fortuitously, at about the same time the Frisbie family of Connecticut were baking 80,000 pies a day, the amount of pies the average ultimate player could eat in the same amount of time. This led to a ton of pie, probably some tighter pants, and a whole lot of ‘Frisbie’-stamped pie tins lying everywhere. Presumably there might have been a few scattered around college dormitories, and the students discovered that they were better and easier to toss on the quad than their textbooks - also cheaper, and you got to eat pie. Players often yelled ‘Frisbie!’ to announce the arrival of a metal projectile to their friends, and the game of toss eventually took on that name as well.
Meanwhile, in two other corners of the US, aliens were landing in New Mexico and a pair of entrepreneurs in Florida, Fred Morrison and Warren Franscioni, had made a novelty disc (partly inspired by the pie tins, partly by alien mind-infiltration) out of polymerized plastic and called it the Whirlo-Way. The inventors eventually split ways, and Morrison went it alone. Aliens seemed like as good a marketing strategy as any in those strange times, so in 1954 he recast the disc in newer, fancier polyethylene plastic and renamed it the Pluto Platter. The aliens intervened in the form of a lucky meeting between Morrison and the Wham-O company, who discovered Morrison and his disc in San Francisco, and Fred and the Pluto Platter finally made it big.
The Pluto Platter in all its otherworldly glory.
Aliens had had their moment, and to appeal to a greater audience of broke college kids, Wham-O renamed the disc with the nifty new name of ‘Frisbee’ and sold a bajillion of them.
The college kids enjoyed this, but missed the pie involved with their athletic endeavors. They got over it eventually. By 1970, Ultimate was slowly taking hold on the east coast thanks to early adopter Joel Silver and other students of Columbia High, who set out rules in a pamphlet, managed to play a few actual games, and took it with them to their respective colleges. The seed had been sown. By 1975, Wham-O was sending every disc out with a copy of the rules of Ultimate, national championships were being played, and the demand was so high that new discs began to appear on the market. In 1988 the new Discraft disc was selected by the Ultimate Players Association as their official game disc, which put Wham-O’s Frisbee on the back burner, but the name (still their trademark today) had become so ubiquitous with the disc and the sport that both are often colloquially, though unofficially, referred to as frisbee by the greater population.
Fast forward to 2017, when discs of every type and for every activity have joined the ranks. USA Ultimate, formerly known as the Ultimate Players Association, chooses a number of discs for approval in official game play, though any disc is fair game for pickup or practice (for more information on how a disc gets officially approved, check out our blog post here). Also in 2017, the ARIA disc arrived on the scene. Developed with specifically formulated plastic and engineered for ideal ultimate-playing - the science behind which you can read about here - ARIA hopes to take its place among disc elite and work to grow the sport. Only time will tell, and then we’ll have to write another history report.
As of publication time, the only people with an ARIA disc headed their way are our lovely Kickstarter backers. Not you? Still dying to get your hands on one? Never fear: our website’s store page will soon live up to its name, and you can buy all the discs your heart desires. To get the inside scoop, put your email in the box at the bottom of the page or on the right margin and we’ll be in touch!
Speaking of history: know details we missed? If you have other info about the history of the flying disc, Ultimate, or pie-tin-tossing aliens, we want to hear about it. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!
We owe a great deal of this post to the following sources:
World Flying Disc Federation: History of the Flying Disc. http://www.wfdf.org/history-stats/history-of-flying-disc/4-history-of-the-frisbee.
Leonardo, Pasquale Anthony. “Ultimate: The Greatest Sport Ever Invented by Man.” New York: Breakaway Books, 2007.
Now that you’ve explored the past, why not dive into the future of ultimate? Check out our online store and learn more about our 1 for 1 model and mission to spread the sport of ultimate.