The Rich Have Been Advising the Middle Class Not to Invest in Themselves for 200 years
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Wednesday, March 03, 2010
I want to begin by stating the facts. When Joe Frisbie died in 1940, his widow, Marina, inherited the family bakery. She ran the ovens on Kossuth Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut for the next 18 years, baking up to 80,000 pies a day. As was the industry standard at the time, each of the tin pie plates was stamped with the company name, and carried a 5 cent deposit, to be repaid for every pie tin returned to the bakery. In 1958 Marina sold the family business to Table Talk Pies, out of Worcester, Massachusetts, and Frisbie Pies ceased to exist. Table Talk is still in business, and bakes 220,000 pies a day. Those are the facts. Now, somehow the legend has been perpetrated that students at Yale University began throwing the pie tins, and thus invented the Frisbee.
The first problem with this legend is that Yale University is not in Bridgeport. Yale is in New Haven, which is 20 miles further to the north. And that is a very long way to throw a Frisbee. There are other problems with the legend, all of which give me the feeling that the Yale alumni were throwing something around besides pie plates. But despite these facts, an original Frisbie Pie tin still sells on Ebay for about $25 – a 25,000% increase in value, primarily because of its mythical connection to a plastic toy. The non-immaculate conception of the Frisbee is a much more interesting story than the myth.
According to the tale as related by Fred Morrison to writer Ben Van Heuvelen a few years before Fred’ death, back in 1937 the then 17 year old Fred and his fiancé Lucile Nay were in her back yard tossing around the lid from a can of popcorn, because they didn’t have a football. The lid’s flight was horribly erratic, and the teenagers made a game of trying to predict which direction the lid would take on each toss. Over the California winter, the pair began playing the game with various lids and plates, looking for a better “spin”. One spring afternoon, while they were tossing a five cent pie plate around on the beach, a man approached Fred and asked where he could buy the toy. Fred immediately sold him the lid for a quarter – a 500% profit.
Having been slapped in the face by opportunity, the couple bought pie tins in bulk from a local hardware store and every weekend took them to the beach where they tossed the tins back and forth, to attract a crowd. The resultant sales did not make anybody rich, but this was still the depression, and every quarter helped. Then World War Two changed the world. 1946 found the couple living in an Army surplus tent in San Luis Obispo. Fred was pouring concrete slabs for home fuel tanks, and Lucy was working at a Lockheed plant. But Fred couldn’t get the profitable spinning pie plate idea out of his head, and eventually mentioned it to his boss, Warren Franscioni. Warren had been a pilot in the war, like Fred, and he also saw the potential in the product, like Fred. But, it seems that unlike Fred, Warren had been paying attention in ground school, and was familiar with the work of Daniel Bernoulli.
Daniel is one of those little known people who should be more famous, for a number of reasons. I remember Daniel because his father, Johann Bernouli, was the biggest heel in the history of mathematics. Despite Daniel’s love of numbers Johann forced the boy into medical school. But Daniel refused to give up on numbers. At one point, father and son tied for a first prize in physics. Johann was so consumed by jealousy that he kicked Daniel out of the house. Johann then waited until Daniel published the work he had won the prize for, and then Johann rewrote the same material, backdating it, so it looked like the son had stolen from the father. What a heel. Father and son never spoke again.
Of course what most people remember about Daniel Bernouli is that before he was 30 he had laid out the mathematics of flight, two hundred years before they would be put to use; one half the pressure of a fluid, times the velocity of the fluid squared, plus the density of the fluid, equals the Bernouli constant. And that may mean nothing to you, (it confuses the heck out of me) but it keeps airplanes in the air, and, with the spin imparted by a flick of the wrist, keeps a Frisbee floating on the air.
Warren explained the Bernouli laws to Fred, and Fred diagramed the basic pie plate shape, except he added a thick outer edge to mimic an airplane’s wing. He called the angle toward the center of the plate “The Morrison Slope”. The pair then drove down to Glendale, California, and showed their drawings to the Southern California Plastic Company. The manager saw the potential and invested eight cylinders of a new plastic, Tennite, which he handed over to the pair from San Louis for testing. Fred then drew eight variations on his original drawing. But before they handed the plastic over to a machinist to carve the drawings into reality, he changed the title on the plans, to disguise the product. He labeled the schematics “Diaphragms for Elephants”. I guess he figured that title would not arouse any curiosity.
Fred and Warren tested the diaphragms, and delivered the one that flew the best to Glendale. In 1948 the first production run of 3,000 Whirlo-Ways (patent #183626) were squeezed out of the injection molds in just two colors, black and blue. Lucile wrote the copy for the packaging, instructing customers to “Play catch – invent games. Experiment!” In 1951 Warren reenlisted in the Air Force for the Korean War, and Fred and Lucy continued to develop the Whirlo-Ways by themselves.
Marketing now took over. The Whirlo-Ways became Whirloways, Flyin-Saucers, Flying Saucers, and Pluto Platters. But the basics of the device did not change; it was a thing that, when you threw it, it floated and bobbed and weaved with a grace that a ball can only dream of.
In 1955, while Fred and Lucile were displaying their Pluto Platters in Los Angeles, they were spotted by two falcon hunters, who had formed a company to market their plastic sling shot, intended to propel meat into the air for training birds of prey. They named their company “Wham-O” after the shout they made when firing their sling shots. But Arthur "Spud" Melin and Richard Knerr were smart enough to realize that most of their slingshots were not being bought by falconers. The problem was they weren’t sure who was buying them.
So they decided to change products, and jumped at the chance to use their meager sling shot profits to buy the North American rights to a Australian bamboo exercise tool which, duplicated in plastic, became the Hula Hoop. Wham-O sold 25 million Hula Hoops in four months, 100 million in two years. In 1956 the pair used their profits from the Hula Hoops to pay Fred and Lucille one million dollars for the patent and the molds of Pluto Platters.
Wham-O’s designers made some improvements on the platters, and in 1958, the year after Frisbie Pies had shut down, they renamed the Pluto Platter as the Frisbee. Why they chose that name I have never been able to discover to my satisfaction. But I suspect somebody in the Wham-O marketing department was a Yale Alumni. The rest is history.