The year is 1938, the place is a Los Angeles beach, and the people are Walter Frederick Morrison and his future wife Lucile. The young couple are lazily tossing a cheap cake pan back and forth on the sand, and they are offered twenty-five cents for it. This is roughly equivalent $6.68 AUD in 2019, though that’s hardly the point.
The point is that money has changed hands over a cake pan.
Walter Frederick Morrison went on to fly Thunderbolts in World War II. He was a prisoner of war, a nomadic carpenter for most of his life, and just in general quite an interesting dude. But if you Google his name and read his obituary, you’ll see that his life will be significant mainly because of the cake pans. And for what those cake pans would become.
If struck by lightning and transported to a parallel universe where you were the only person who knew what a frisbee was, and you patented the design and everything, and pitched it to a toy or sports supplies company and it got picked up and mass-produced and sold all over the world, what would you call it? Because surely you wouldn’t call it the “Frisbee”. You could do better than that, right?
How about the Turbo Rotator? Or something that sounds a little less like a depraved/niche/embarrassing wrestling move? Maybe the Spinnerooni? The Twisty Disc? The Ol’ Cake Pan? Maybe you’d call it something like the Flat And Circular Plastic Ball That Weighs 175g. Or just The David Disc, assuming, of course, that your name is David.
Naming stuff is hard. The point of this thought experiment is to put you in the proverbial shoes of Walter Frederick Morrison - who went by Fred, by the way - and to get some sense of how hard it is to assign meaningful, marketable words to a thing you have created. And plus maybe also you’ll cut Fred some slack. Because for a while he tried to call it the Whirlo Way. And when that didn’t stick, he called it the Pluto Platter.
Yes, the Pluto Platter. Just for a moment, picture what your life would be like if the name “Pluto Platter” had endured all these years. Good God. Holy shit. Yikes. Imagine, if you even can, how hard it would be to explain to an acquaintance what the fuck “Ultimate Pluto Platter” is and why you spend so much money on it.
You can probably see some obvious flaws in the Pluto Platter’s branding. It’s just forced and kind of naff alliteration really isn’t it? And also Pluto got demoted. It’s shitkicking with dwarf planets these days, making “Pluto Platter” no less clever or relevant than if it was called the Huamea Helioid or the Ceres Circle, which are real names of real dwarf planets if you were wondering. And what’s a platter got to do with it anyway, except for being a large flat dish that you eat food off? Why not Plate? What’s the reasoning there? And so wait, it’s meant to be like a sort of planet, and a vaguely spaceshipy flying thing, but also you can lay out some nice cheeses on it if you want? And you want me to pay how much for it? Look. Forget all those obvious flaws. Because, at the time, the Platter mattered. It was a hit. A veritable sensation, available in blue and yellow and red.
The toy listed all the planets of the solar system around its rim (including Pluto, lol, duh). And even though it’s a piece of shit primordial Wham-O, the kind of cheap plastic trash that even the Innova Pulsar would have bullied in high school, it’s got a cool vibe. Its obvious selling point is its ability to fly. There’s something mesmeric and commercially viable about the soaring of a bit of plastic through the air.
*Kind Of Interesting And Also Kind Of Spooky Tid-Bit To Throw Around At Parties* Like everyone must, Walter Frederick Morrison eventually died. In 2010, as per his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were moulded into a disc to be tossed around at family barbeques. Couldn’t spike that disc, no sir.
By the 1960s, a fella named Edward ‘Steady Ed’ Headrick had taken over the Frisbee’s marketing. Steady Ed ditched the space stuff, increased the thickness of the rim for stability, and marketed the toy as sports paraphernalia. Whereas the Pluto Platter was a kooky plastic circle that you just sort of chucked and hoped/prayed it didn't falcon anyone, Steady Ed’s Frisbee became an actual controllable thing. You could throw it at all kinds of angles and it would still fly. It would in fact curve quite nicely, sensibly, beautifully, without rolling over or hitting anyone in the head. He patented a design with raised grooves around its edge to help it fly, now known as the “Rings of Headrick”. You know the ones. You vacantly move your thumb against them while waiting to pull.
*Less Interesting, Really Getting Kind Of Spooky Tid-Bit That’s Revealing Of A Larger Pattern And/Or Conspiracy* Like everyone must, Steady Ed eventually died. In 2002, as per his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were moulded into a memorial disc for family and friends. Shortly before his death he said, “When we die, we don’t go to purgatory. We just land up on the roof and lay there”.
So what is it about Frisbee pioneers and sculpting their ashes into flying discs? Mr Gray-Nicholls didn’t mould his ashes into a cricket bat. Thomas Edison didn’t posthumously become a light bulb. Is a Frisbee just that kind of toy?
You’re probably reading this because you like Ultimate Frisbee - even if you also say you hate it to seem cool. At the very least, you must like throwing a Frisbee. You must somewhat enjoy having a toss. A chuck. A bitta-throw-catchy. But can you even for one second imagine yourself inside a disc? Like, can you imagine taking all that you are, burning it, and sculpting the ashes into a frisbee? To be tossed around casually at family barbecues? To be thrown up on the roof?
You may have noticed that while you’re often having to explain the “Ultimate” side of things to cousins and girls at parties and whatever, you never need to explain the “Frisbee”. Everyone just gets the frisbee part. It’s a child’s toy with a simple premise: you throw it and it flies. This has obvious appeal. And the thing’s basic, easy prettiness helps explain its profitability - all the way back to the cake pan days. It does not, however, explain why adult human beings involuntarily gasp when they see a Really Good Throw. That’s because Really Good Throws are very complicated.
They start with an idea. A seeing of space, an open-ish receiver, and the gall to suppose that only you can connect the dots. Then you step out, bringing everything but your pivot foot with you. You wind up, then uncoil and snap every muscle in your arm from shoulder to index finger, slinging the disc out like a whip. And of course how you let go of it is very important. You’ve got to consider what shape you need the disc to carve, so that it is only catchable for the player you have chosen, and just exactly what angle and height you’ll need to release it at to achieve this. And how much force should you put behind it, and into it? And how much should it spin? You’ve got to think about the hardness of your step out, the quickness of the snap. And also the wind, and what it could do to the frisbee not just out of the hand but in 20-30 metres. All these things have to be done with millimetre precision, because it’s really just an ultralight bit of plastic you’re working with here, a really very simple children’s toy you’re trying to put on a dime. Plus it’s got to be done in spite of various physical obstacles and time pressures and quickly closing windows and the fact that you know, you might fuck it up. You have to manage all the various competing forces of momentum and aerodynamics to get a shitty little plastic platter to go exactly where you want it to. And do it while seven people and the wind try to stop you.
Surely not many computers yet in existence could, in a timely enough manner, calculate and reconcile the infinity of variables that exist in a single power position flick huck - smoke would pour out of the mainframe. Circuits would sizzle. Silicon would melt. Because it’s not something you can even compute; your nose would start bleeding. It’s something you feel. Something you watch and just get. And admire. And gasp at involuntarily.
A Really Good Throw makes some sense of Fred and Steady Ed’s final wishes. Because while there’d be no pleasure in being sketchily scoobered, or pulled by AShep circa 2016, it probably wouldn’t be so bad to be inside a Really Good Throw. To feel yourself shot out. And to soar. And to flatten out. And to come to do that weird, surreal floating thing that a Really Good Throw does where it seems to hang, almost-but-not-quite-completely-still, six feet off the ground while still spinning perfectly, as if it is somehow outside of the usual laws of physics and gravity and time.
Hopefully this is what it’s like for the charred remains of Frisbee’s founding fathers.
And all you need to do to experience true, beautiful, revolutionary flight is, you know, die. Because everyone has to eventually. Have your mortal body melted down and sculpted into 175g of plastic. Live forever as a Frisbee. Make it clear in your last will and testament that no one is allowed to scoober you, and be tossed back and forth at gentle angles in the park.
*Also, hey, in the very unlikely event of further interest, here’s a video of Steady Ed and Fred sitting next to each other on some weird old game show, talking about the invention of the platter that matters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L39F0PT-vY. If you decide to watch, first observe the general lameness of 90’s game shows, and second think to yourself (and be unable to un-think), “Hey! Both those dudes are Frisbees now!”