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Frisbee (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

The Frisbee began as something called the "Pluto Platter", and it would have stayed that way except for two things: The fanaticism of Ed Headrick, and the demise of the Hula Hoop.

In 1964, Headrick asked the Wham-O toy company for a job, but they told him they were short of money. Headrick, though, was so interested in developing toys that he agreed to work for free for the first three months.

He became fascinated with Wham-O's Frisbee, then called the Pluto Platter. As he once said "I felt the Frisbee had some kind of spirit involved. It's not just like playing catch with a ball. It's the beautiful flight."

Just as Headrick joined Wham-O, the hula hoop craze ended. This left the company with a warehouse of unsold hoops. Headrick realized that if he melted down the Hula Hoops, Wham-O could make more of these flying discs. But before he could do this he needed to improve them. The disks sold poorly, partly because they wobbled too much as they flew, dropping out of the air after only a short distance. Headrick made the crucial improvement that made the Frisbee really fly. He cut small grooves in the top of the Frisbee. He described their purpose in his 1967 patent: These grooves "exert an interfering effect on the air flow over the implement [the Frisbee] and create a turbulent unseparated boundary layer over the top of the implement reducing aerodynamic drag." In other words, it makes the air stick to the top of the Frisbee, letting if fly farther.

Next he got rid of the name Pluto Platter. Wham-O had chosen the name to appeal to obsession with outer space and flying saucers in the 1950s.

Under Headrick's guidance, all references to planets and UFOs were dropped. He thought they seemed childish, and he was right. Students in particular flocked to buy the faster, cooler frisbee. Sales of these so-called Professional Frisbees zoomed to over 100 million within thirty years.

Headrick never fell out of love with the Frisbee. In 1976, he created the sport Disc Golf where players hurl Frisbees at metal cages, which is now played by over two million Americans. He dedicated the remainder of his life to promoting this game, claiming that "Disc Golf is my life." He saw the game as a "new way", in his words, for "wandering people who have graduated from High School with no purpose in life." He travelled around America to give demonstrations of the sport he loved.

He joked once, "We used to say that Frisbee is really a religion -- 'Frisbyterians,' we'd call ourselves." Adding, "when we die, we don't go to purgatory. We just land up on the roof and lay there."

And when he died, Ed Headrick requested that his family have him cremated, and have his ashes molded into Frisbees.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises