A number of years ago, I stumbled across an old pie tin at a flea market. It was a pretty standard affair with a plain rim and a few small holes punched through the bottom to keep the crust crispy. I’m not much of a baker, but I was fascinated by the familiar name embossed on the bottom: Frisbie’s Pies. So I forked over $5, hoping to own a piece of intellectual-property history.
When I got home, I did a bit of research and learned the Frisbie pie tin was, in fact, a predecessor of today’s ubiquitous Frisbee flying disc; so I hung the tin on my office wall. And I was reminded of my flea-market purchase recently when I happened to see the newspaper headline “Inventor of Frisbee Dies” over an article about the passing of Arthur “Spud” Melin, 77, in June. It got me thinking about innovation-both where ideas come from and what makes them successful in the marketplace.
Melin, whose company Wham-O in 1967 received U.S. patent 3,359,678 for the plastic flying disc, was unquestionably a toy-marketing genius. In addition to the phenomenally successful Frisbee, he also gave kids such iconic playthings as the Hula Hoop, the Superball and the Slip ‘n’ Slide water toy. Little wonder he was able to sell the company-which he started in his garage as a college student in 1948-for some $12 million when he decided to retire in 1982.
Spud Melin had an enormous impact on my childhood and my whole generation. But he in no way whatsoever invented the Frisbee, despite what the obituary headlines or the U.S. patent office might say. Rather, his story is a reminder that inventing something is rarely as important as what’s done with the invention afterward. In high-tech fields, we are often so fixated on new creations that we forget that being first is usually not as important as being best. Indeed, the history of the Frisbee makes a pretty good parable about modern-day invention.
Flying discs have ancient roots, of course; 2,500 years ago, the discus throw was part of the Olympic Games. But the history of the modern-day Frisbee has more to do with Frisbie Pie of Bridgeport, CT. Founded by William Russell Frisbie in 1871, the bakery was a scant 30 kilometers from the student hordes of Yale College in New Haven, CT. Yale students, it seems, were wild about Frisbie’s pies. And after eating them, the students would burn off their sugar highs by tossing the metal pie plates around.
Testimonials about Frisbie pie tin throwing date to the 1920s, possibly earlier. The tradition is thought to have peaked in the mid-1950s, when Frisbie Pie was producing as many as 80,000 pies per day. Around this time, a building inspector named Fred Morrison had the idea of making the pie tins particularly well suited for throwing by molding them out of that new wonder material, plastic. In fact, it was Morrison who in 1958 got the first U.S. patent on a “flying disc.” He had some success hawking his toy at county fairs (he called it the Pluto Platter) before selling the idea to Melin at Wham-O.
Wham-O didn’t have much luck with the Pluto Platter at first. But legend has it that sometime at the end of the 1950s, Wham-O cofounder Richard Knerr made a tour of Ivy League college campuses and learned that students were following Yale’s lead and calling pie tin throwing “Frisbie-ing.” Knerr misspelled the name as “Frisbee,” and the rest, as they say, is history. Wham-O has reportedly sold 100 million of the flying discs-which may even make for a new Olympics competition one of these years, in the form of the popular team sport ultimate Frisbee.
So who invented the Frisbee? Certainly not Melin. He simply bought Morrison’s technology. Some might suggest that Morrison deserves the recognition. After all, he did decide to make the discs plastic and shaped them to fly a bit better. But my vote still goes to the now forgotten groups of raucous Yale students and their tin-throwing counterparts on other college campuses. Like so many other new ideas, or new technologies, the Frisbee was not created out of whole cloth by an individual inventor; rather it percolated up in an existing milieu from the materials at hand.
The obituaries were wrong in their shorthand headlines: Melin no more invented the Frisbee than Bill Gates invented the computer operating system or Henry Ford invented the automobile. And yet, it’s hard to overstate his contribution. Like Gates and Ford, Melin took a truly innovative concept that was invented by others, saw its enormous potential and then did the legwork to anticipate and stimulate demand for it. It was Melin who had the vision to market the plastic disc in an appealing way. It was Melin who had the good sense to rename it and repackage it until he captured the youthful market he sought.
So here’s to Spud Melin and all the others who spin half-baked ideas into useful, enduring products. When we think about innovation, let’s not forget this part of the equation. I still keep my Frisbie Pie tin on my office wall. To me, it’s a reminder that ideas are all around us; sometimes where they come from may not be as important as who ultimately makes them fly.
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