Arthur “Spud” Melin has recently died. With his business partner, Richard “Rich” Knerr, he successfully marketed the Frisbee, as well as several other joyful additions to human silliness, such as the Hula Hoop, the Slip ’N Slide and Silly Putty.
But neither Arthur Melin nor Richard Knerr can lay any claim to inventing the thing. And, despite their registering the name as a trade mark back in 1959, it’s also pretty clear that they cannot claim to have invented the word Frisbee either. It’s not a surprise that folklore should have grown up around an item that has become an archetypal part of the American way of life; what is odd is that the most commonly quoted story about where its name came from may even be true.
The direct history of the device is well known. For a long time, kids had played with throwing metal pie tins. Just after World War Two, two former Army Air Corps pilots named Warren Franscioni and Fred Morrison, based in San Luis Obispo, California, found a way of moulding war-surplus plastics into a concave aerodynamic shape that mimicked the action of pie tins but was a lot lighter and bruised you less when it hit you. This was 1948, and the term flying saucer had just appeared. Franscioni and Morrison borrowed it for their new toy — it was also at various times called the Rotary Fingernail Clipper, the Pipco Crash (after Morrison’s company) and the Pluto Platter.
The pair sold their saucer toys in California markets in the late 1940s and early 1950s, without huge success. Around 1955, they met Melin and Knerr, who had been running a novelty toy company since 1948 under the name of Wham-O, from the name of their first product, a wooden slingshot. They bought Morrison out (but didn’t pay anything to Franscioni, it appears) and marketed the Pluto Platters with mixed success. It was only after they renamed it the Frisbee that the device really caught on. The rest, to coin a cliché, is history.
But why Frisbee? It has been said that it came from the name of Mr Frisbie, a US comic strip. But another story takes us across the continent to the Frisbie Baking Company of Connecticut. The Frisbie company sold its pies in tins embossed with the firm’s name. As elsewhere, the empty pie tins were found to be throwable with a little skill. It is particularly said that games with them were played by Yale undergraduates around the time of the Second World War and after. Naturally they borrowed the company’s name for the game. Quite how Spud Melin or Rich Knerr heard about this from 3000 miles away is not clear, but it is suggested that one or other of them encountered it during a sales trip to the East Coast.
Despite the anecdotal nature of the link, and the lack of really firm evidence, it is now cautiously accepted by the experts that this is indeed where the name came from.
The saddest part of all this is that the Frisbie Baking Company went out of business in 1958, just when a respelled version of their name was about to become famous.