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50 Years of Frisbee

'When balls dream," says Victor Malafronte, "they dream of becoming Frisbees." And for 50 years, plastic, saucer-shaped flying Frisbees have been the dream of their spherical cousins.

Walter Morrison, an inventor from California, made the first plastic flying disk in 1948. But a Frisbee's roots go back to apple pie. Or was it blueberry?

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Legend says that in the early 1900s, students at Yale University began to buy empty pie tins from the Frisbie Pie Co. in nearby Bridgeport, Conn. They skimmed the tins to each other, yelling "Frisbie!" as they threw. (It may have been Frisbie Pie employees flinging the tins on breaks who gave the students the idea.)

No matter who first tossed a tin, it's a fact that the pastime began to soar. It grew especially popular among college students in the Northeastern United States. Soon cookie-tin covers, ice-cream lids, even tops of 10-gallon shortening cans were also being flung about.

But the Frisbee breakthrough came after World War II. Mr. Morrison and his partner, Warren Franscioni, had an idea. What about a flying disk that wouldn't hurt your hands the way metal disks could? Plastic, the new "miracle" material, might be the answer.

In 1957, Morrison sold his "Flyin Saucer" toy to Wham-O. Wham-O was eager to mass-produce the disks, but needed a catchy new name. The East Coast's pie-tin-tossing tradition provided an inspiration, and the Frisbee was born.

Today, more than 300 million Frisbees have been sold. Why are they so popular? Mr. Malafronte, who was the first World Frisbee Champion in 1974, has an idea:

"Mankind loves to throw things," he says, "and we dream about flying. Throwing a Frisbee combines the two in perfect harmony."

Some of the early flying disks fetch high prices these days. Collectors are still searching for a handful of original Frisbie Pie tins that were decked out with two whistles, a color wheel, and a light in 1933. (Have you seen one? It may be worth $2,000.)

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Other, mint-condition plastic disks are worth more than $500. Better check your attic.

Frisbee sales soared during the 1950s because of the country's fascination with UFOs. Flying-disk names reflected this: "Pluto Platter," "Sailing Satellite," and "It Came From Outer Space Flying Saucer."

Frisbees are meant for throwing and catching. But people who don't know this have come up with alternative uses.

A few years back, Wham-O donated a truckload of Frisbees to an orphanage in Angola, on the southwest coast of Africa. Months later, the company received a letter from a nun at the orphanage, thanking them for the "wonderful plates."

Not only were the children eating off them, the nun reported, some were using the plates to catch fish, fetch water, and carry things. "And do you know what else?" she added, "Some of the children are throwing them and playing catch."

When thrown properly, a Frisbee flies tipped up slightly. Air moving over the top of the disk flows faster than the air moving underneath it. The difference in air pressure creates lift. It's the same principle that causes airplanes to fly.

When you toss a Frisbee, you flick your wrist. This causes the Frisbee to spin. The spinning gives the disk stability, like a gyroscope. (Try throwing a Frisbee without any spin - you can't!)

Most flying disks have ridges around the top edge. You may think that the ridges are there just to help you grip the disk, but that's not all they do. The ridges also break up the airflow around the disk. This creates a low-pressure wake that helps the Frisbee slide through the air more easily, with less drag. That helps it go farther.

Now that you know how a Frisbee works, you're probably eager to go out and toss one. So go out and have a ball.

Scratch that: Go out and have a Frisbee.

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