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A “Skyrider Pro Sports Disc” stuck in a tree

words William Wiles

The urge to Frisbee is far older than the Frisbee itself. The ancient Greeks were throwing the discus for sport in the fifth century BC. There appear to be some flying discs, one of which is stuck on a roof, in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1560 painting Children’s Games.

When we are handed a fine china plate or any other circular object of suitable size, it’s quite common to be gripped by a compulsion to fling it out of the nearest window, in order to see how far it will travel. That urge was certainly felt by Walter Frederick Morrison, the man generally acknowledged as the inventor of the plastic, modern Frisbee. Morrison enjoyed throwing and catching popcorn can lids and cake pans with his wife, and before the Second World War sold metal dishes for this purpose on Californian beaches. During the war he was trained in aeronautics, and put that training to use afterwards in developing a plastic disc. In 1948, the first moulded butyl-stearate version was developed, ready for marketing to an American public fascinated with flying saucers after the “UFO wave” of 1947.

The Frisbee name comes from William Russell Frisbie, who started making pies in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1871. Pies from the Frisbie Pie Company were sold in metal dishes that were well suited to throwing. Wham-O bought the rights to the disc from Morrison in 1957 and patented its own version in 1958, marketing it nationally as the “Toy Flying Saucer”. The same year, the Frisbie Pie Company closed, removing the last obstacle to Wham-O’s patenting the name “Frisbee” in 1959. (The change in spelling may have been a legal precaution.)

Since then, tens of millions of official Frisbees have been sold, but many millions more unofficial plastic flying discs have also been sold, and get called Frisbees in spite of Wham-O’s attempts to protect its trademark. Wham-O might not have invented the summer recreation, but they did invent its universal name.

It has to be summer recreation, because you need space to play with a Frisbee and for most people that means outside in the park. Other than that, all you need to play is a Frisbee and at least one friend, and the game you end up playing is a very good test of character and the nature of one’s friendships. It’s entirely possible to play cooperatively, just for fun, attempting to build a rally of perfect throws and catches. Normally, however, Frisbee tosses turn into exhibitions of competitiveness normally not seen outside the chariot race in Ben Hur, as players strive to catch one another out. It’s that human urge to compete that has moulded the development of Frisbee. It is a product of idleness, the idleness that first caused people to fling about cake tins. There’s no purpose in a Frisbee throw. You can choose to exert yourself in a game if you want, but it’s easily played with little in the way of heavy effort. It’s a pursuit industrialised and marketed in the leisure age of the 1950s when, for the first time, the majority of people in the West had spare time to fill, and companies like Wham-O were trying to find ways to help them fill it.

But for some people everything has to be a sport. The official Frisbee sport is called Ultimate – it used to be Ultimate Frisbee, a name that apparently caused too many disputes with Wham-O. We’re a playful species, one that is prolific in its creation of games and pastimes, but even while thriving on our leisure time we find something inherently unsavoury in pure idleness. Idle pursuits, it seems, must always be systematised, with rules and points, winners and losers. Ultimately, the real wonder of the Frisbee is not that people can take a piece of waste and make a game of it, but that people can take an idle leisure activity and make an industry of it, make a sports league from it, and fight legal battles over it.

images Justin McGuirk

top image A “Skyrider Pro Sports Disc” stuck in a tree

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