The Man Responsible for the Modern Frisbee Design and the “Father of Disc Golf” was Cremated and Had His Ashes Molded Into Frisbees

Today I found out the man responsible for the modern Frisbee design and the “Father of Disc Golf” was cremated and had his ashes molded into Frisbees to give to friends and family.

While man has been throwing Frisbee-like objects around for many thousands of years, the Frisbee itself is something of a modern “invention”.  The tale of the Frisbee starts with former building inspector Walter Morrison and his investor Warren Franscioni.  Morrison is considered to be the “inventor” of the Frisbee, though in truth his flying disc was not called a Frisbee and, while extremely close to the design of the “modern” flying disc sold under that name, it’s not technically the current patented design used for the standard Frisbee. In addition, Morrison’s design was notorious for wobbly flight as it flew through the air, something a few later tweaks helped fixed.

None-the-less, Morrison did get the ball rolling with the modern toy and sporting item, getting the idea for selling such flying discs after he and his wife were tossing a tin cake pan back and forth on a  beach in Santa Monica, California.  Some people watching offered to buy their cake pan from them for 25 cents.  Morrison noted, “That got the wheels turning, because you could buy a cake pan for 5 cents, and if people on the beach were willing to pay a quarter for it, well, there was a business.”

He then set about selling these tins at beaches, a small business that was put on hold thanks to WWII.  The war wasn’t all bad for the future development of the Frisbee as Morrison learned quite a bit about aerodynamics as a pilot during WWII, which helped him move beyond pie tins. (Although, he also spent 48 days in a German prison camp after being shot down… so, hmmm.)

After the war, he came up with the “Whirlo-Way” flying disc design that flew more accurately and further than pie tins.  With Warren Franscioni financing him, he started selling this flying disc under a new name, “Flyin-Saucer”, at various fairs.  This went over fairly well, but soon Morrison found himself flying solo when Franscioni left the partnership in 1950.  Morrison soldiered on, further improving the design over the next few years and now selling his flying disc under the name “Pluto Platter”, picking the name with the same motive as “Flyin-Saucer”, hoping to continue to capitalize on the UFO craze in the United States.

In 1957,  Morrison was approached by Rich Knerr and A.K. Melin, owners of  the Wham-O toy company, and convinced to sell the rights to the Pluto-Platter to Wham-O. In order to help boost sales, they renamed the Pluto Platter, “Frisbee”, referencing the more popular name for flying disc toys in New England at the time, “Frisbie”. This was coined after the pie tins commonly used as flying discs on college campuses in New England (from the Frisbie Baking Company out of Connecticut, founded in 1871).  “Frisbie” was trademarked, so they simply changed the spelling to “Frisbee”.

Enter Edward “Steady Ed” Headrick who is largely responsible for the Frisbee becoming something more than just a fad toy item. Headrick got a job at Wham-O when he volunteered to work for them for free for three months with no conditions on what they did after the three months were up. (He first applied in the traditional manner, but couldn’t get a job that way.)  The project they assigned him during this period was the Pluto Platter, which he set about improving in a myriad of ways. After the three months were up, Wham-O not only decided to hire him, but also paid him for the 3 months he’d just worked, even though they were not obligated to do so. Within a decade of being hired, he became the CEO of the company.

Among many other things Frisbee related Headrick was responsible for, he:

  • Implemented and patented a series of improvements to the original Flying Disc design (patent #183626″). Particularly looking to make the Frisbee fly further and more accurately by adjusting the rim thickness and top design, including adding concentric circles to help stabilize flight and give people something to grip better with to increase spin rate.  Headricks’ patent #3359678 is the patent number you’ll find on most standard Frisbee brand Frisbees sold today.
  • Created and helped foster a variety of Frisbee related sports.
  • Left Wham-O to co-found the Professional Disc Golf Association with Ken Headrick in 1975.  Today about two million people in the U.S. alone play Disc Golf regularly.
  • Founded the International Frisbee Association, which had 112,000 members by 1972.
  • Inventor of the Disc Golf Basket used on official Disc Golf courses.
  • Established the World Frisbee Championships. (Headrick won the senior World Frisbee Championship at the Rose Bowl in 1976, winning the distance and accuracy contests, as well as the Disc Golf tournament.)
  • Was largely responsible for transforming the Frisbee from a fad toy to a staple sports item almost universally seen on beaches the world over.

Headrick died on August 14, 2002 at the age of 78.  Per his request, his children had his ashes mixed into plastic which was used to make a batch of Frisbees. These were distributed among some of his friends and relatives, as well as auctioned off, with proceeds going towards a Frisbee and Disc Golf Museum. (This has since been opened, The Ed Headrick Memorial Museum, home of the Disc Golf Hall of Fame in Columbia County, Georgia).

Shortly before his death, Headrick stated,

I felt the Frisbee had some kind of a spirit involved. It’s not just like playing catch with a ball, it’s the beautiful flight… We used to say that Frisbee is really a religion – Frisbyterians we’d call ourselves.  When we die, we don’t go to purgatory. We just land up on the roof and lay there.

And, indeed, Headrick told his son, Daniel, that he wanted his ashes to “end up in a Frisbee that accidentally lands on someone’s roof.”  In order to honor this request, one of those Frisbees with Headrick’s ashes embedded in it was thrown by his wife, Farina, onto the roof of The Ed Headrick Memorial Museum, where it presumably remains to this day.

If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also like:

Bonus Facts:

  • Before Wham-O, Ed Headrick worked at Pioneer, a water heater and plumbing company.  While there, he devised a scheme to network plumbers together across the U.S. in order to guarantee that when someone ordered a Pioneer water heater or garbage disposal, it could be installed within 24 hours.  This, and other such innovations, vaulted Headrick from salesman to Vice-President of the company, and took Pioneer from one of the smallest hot water and garbage disposal companies in the country to one of the biggest of the day.
  • It turns out, you can pay to have your ashes put in a lot of weird things.  For instance:
    • You can have your ashes put into bullet or shotgun shells by the company, Holy Smoke.  Currently you can get 250 shotgun shells with your loved one’s ashes included for $850, or 100 rifle cartridges for the same price.
    • Another company, And Vinyly, will press your ashes into a vinyl record and even mix some of your ashes into the ink that is used for the label and album cover of the record.
    • Some tattoo artists will mix someone’s ashes into the ink used for a tattoo.
    • You can have your ashes pressed into a diamond by LifeGem, using a synthetic diamond process.  Prices for these diamonds range from $2,699 to $24,999.  Pretty reasonable compared to typical traditional body burial prices, which is to say shockingly expensive.  But in this case, at the end you get a diamond out of it.
    • Celestis will shoot some of your ashes into orbit for a mere $4,995, or if you don’t mind a quick return, simply up high into the atmosphere for $995.  Further, if you want to pay $12,500, you can have your ashes put into lunar orbit or on the moon itself.  Also for $12,500, they’ll give you a “deep space” package, shooting some of your ashes off into the gaping void of space where all the physical elements that comprised you came from in the first place (from stars).
    • Want something closer to home?  Eternal Reefs will mix your ashes in with concrete and place them in the ocean to make a home for marine life.  This 2′ x 3′ structure placed in the water will run you about $3,995.
  • Among many other toys, Wham-O is also responsible for the Slip ‘N Slide as well as popularizing the Hoola-Hoop,  Hacky Sack, and Super Ball (a.k.a. “bouncy ball”).
  • Before any record of pie tins being thrown as Frisbee-like objects, it was common in the early 19th century for kids to toss can lids.
  • In 1968, the U.S. Navy spent nearly a half a million dollars to study the Frisbee in wind tunnels.  Particularly they were looking at creating a flare launcher with the flares being Frisbee shaped and thrown by a special Frisbee launching machine they were developing.
  • Morrison originally hated the name of the Frisbee when Wham-O changed the Pluto Platter to that moniker to help boost sales.  However, after receiving about $2,000,000 in royalty payments throughout the rest of his life, Morrison stated in an interview shortly before his death, “I wouldn’t change the name of it for the world.”
  • Wham-O sold about 100,000,000 Frisbees before selling the Frisbee to Mattel.  To date, around 200,000,000 Frisbee brand flying discs have been sold.
  • In 1978, the Frisbee craze reached such a pitch that, according to the Disc Golf Association, more Frisbees were sold that year in the United States than baseballs, footballs, and basketballs combined.
  • High School students in Maplewood, New Jersey are generally credited with inventing Ultimate Frisbee in 1967.
  • In 2010 alone in the United States, various Ice Bowl tournaments (Disc Golf tournaments played in the winter) raised over $250,000 for charity and donated about 67,000 pounds of food to various food banks.
  • While Headrick is considered the “Father of Disc Golf” because of his contributions to the sport and founding of the professional organization, the real pioneer of the sport was Kevin Donnelly who formulated a version of Disc Golf called Street Frisbee Golf in 1959.  He later helped organize Frisbee golf tournaments, including a 1965 Wham-O sponsored city wide Frisbee Golf Tournament.  He also taught the first Frisbee Golf class at Fresno State College in 1967.
  • Walter Morrison’s father supposedly invented the sealed-beam automotive headlight, though I was not able to ascertain his father’s name, nor find the patent for said item.  That being said, pretty much every Frisbee article I’ve read notes that, so perhaps it’s true.  Until I see the patent with his name on it, I’m taking this one with a grain of salt though.
  • Today there are over 3,000 Disc Golf courses in about 44 countries in the world, with about 87% of those courses being free to use.  The number of Disc Golf courses is estimated to be increasing at a rate of about 15% per year since 2000.  If that continues, sometime in the next few decades Disc Golf is going to be a really big deal. 😉
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  • In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Walter Frederick Morrison owned and operated Waltz Hardware and Building Center in La Verne, California. He lived in La Verne and married local Realtor, Sara Carey, in La Verne in 1972.

    As for Morrison’s father’s (Walter Florian Morrison) connection to the invention of the sealed beam headlamp, here is a link to a patent issued to Walter F. Morrison on October 20, 1925, for “Reflector for light projectors.” In his description, he refers to it’s application to motor vehicles.

    The senior Morrison was an optometrist and also was issued a patent on August 14, 1962, for a “Spectacle Frame Mount.”

    He was issued another patent on October 11, 1960, for a “Mold for Frozen Confections.”

    I don’t know how helpful this information is, but I found it interesting.