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AFTER 30 HIGH-FLYING YEARS, THE FRISBEE STILL SOARS
Mark Danna
May 11, 1987
The Space Age officially began with the launch of the Sputnik I on Oct. 4, 1957. But if you ask me, the Space Age began earlier that year—around Jan. 13—when the Wham-O Manufacturing Co. of San Gabriel, Calif., launched a product it would come to call the Frisbee.
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May 11, 1987

After 30 High-flying Years, The Frisbee Still Soars

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One day in 1956, Morrison says, he was demonstrating his Pluto Platters in a parking lot when he was approached by representatives of entrepreneurs Rich Knerr and A.K. (Spud) Melin. A few years earlier Knerr and Melin had teamed up and made a fair penny on a slingshot. When fired correctly, it made a sound something like "whammo," which seemed as good a name as any for their company. They would later market the Hula Hoop and the Super Ball, but at that moment they saw endless possibilities in Morrison's saucer. Knerr and Melin invited Morrison to seal the deal at their plant in San Gabriel. In 1957, Wham-O launched the Pluto Platter, which was soon retooled and rechristened the Frisbee.

Robes's disc, meanwhile, wasn't doing as well. In retrospect, the Parker Brothers' offer hadn't been so bad. "We were to get three cents, four cents apiece for each saucer up to a certain amount," says Robes. "Then it would cut down to two cents. It didn't sound like much. But I read in the papers this fella Morrison took in $500,000 just in royalties. So you can see that two cents apiece could have been quite a lot."

When he began to hear about the West Coast disc, Robes assumed Morrison had stolen his idea, but because he had received the earlier patent, he thought he was protected. Unfortunately his patent claims were too narrow, covering only a precise disc constructed in a very specific way—including support flanges that Morrison's disc never had. "With broader claims and without the need for flanges," says Rory Radding, a partner with the patent-law firm of Pennie & Edmonds in New York, "Robes might have covered the Frisbee." When Robes ceased production in 1962, he had sold 65,000 Space Saucers and had plenty left over.

As sales of the Frisbee took off, Morrison used his money to buy planes, which he piloted. He also owned a hardware store and operated a small airport. Now, at 67, he runs a motel in Richfield, Utah, with his third wife.

Robes also ended up with his own business, the Moose Mountain Pine Custom Furniture business of Etna, N.H. Now 76 and retired, he is married and living in Etna. He was recently elected to the National Ski Hall of Fame as a pioneer in American ski jumping.

Despite all they have in common, the two inventors have never met. Asked what he might tell Morrison if they ever did, Robes replies, "It wouldn't be what I'd tell him, it'd be what I'd show him: my big fist!" Then Robes chuckles, "No, no. He was right in what he did."

Like a lot of 30-year-olds, Frisbees are part of the establishment now. Wham-O—like the owners of such brand names as Xerox, Kleenex and Zamboni—spends much time protecting its product's trademark. It's the price of success. But a benefit of success is all the people playing Guts, Disc Golf, Ultimate, Freestyle and the irresistible Catch & Fetch (with dogs) in organized competitions. This June in La Mirada, Calif., Wham-O will stage a tournament with 260 Frisbee jocks competing for $40,000 in prize money. The event is called the U.S. Open Flying Disc Championships, and for the first time in the tournament's 14-year history Wham-O will allow any flying disc of reasonable design to be used. Who knows, maybe one of Bill Robes's Space Saucers will finally have its day in the sun.

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