Frisbee at fifty: Plastic disc's freestyle fun now includes organized sports

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Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos
Acadia Klain, co-captain of Carnegie Mellon University's Ultimate Frisbee women's team, demonstrates how to throw the disc with a forehand flick.
By Mark Roth
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Acadia Klain wasn't even a glimmer in her parents' eyes when one of her enduring passions was invented.

Ms. Klain is co-captain of Carnegie Mellon University's Ultimate Frisbee women's team, in which the plastic disc is used in a game that combines the skills of basketball and outdoor soccer.

Acadia Klain shows the proper grip for a standard backhand throw.
Click photo for larger image.

Related content

Video: The Frisbee at fifty / Throwing technique
Spinning out Frisbee tales
For more information
Official Frisbee site: www.frisbeedisc.com
Ultimate Players Association: www.upa.org
Disc golf: www.pdga.org
Freestyle Frisbee: www.freestyledisc.org
Frisbee records: www.wfdf.org

The senior architecture major is 23. The Frisbee itself turned 50 this year.

Walter Frederick Morrison, the man credited with inventing the Frisbee, said this month that he got the idea as a teenager in the 1930s after his family began flinging popcorn can lids around to burn off the tryptophan from a Thanksgiving dinner.

It wasn't until 1955, though, that he invented the plastic disc, which he originally named the Pluto Platter in honor of all the UFO sightings being reported at the time.

Two years later, Mr. Morrison sold the rights to the disc to Wham-O Inc., which patented it as the Frisbee. The name was changed to evoke the pie tins made by the Frisbie Pie Co. of Bridgeport, Conn., which Yale students had been tossing around for years.

Even though all of this predated Ms. Klain's appearance on the globe, she does own a piece of Frisbee history.

It was her sport, Ultimate Frisbee, which caused the disc to become more than just a U.S. phenomenon and start spreading around the world in the 1970s, said Phil Kennedy, a Frisbee aficionado and co-author of "Flat Flip Flies Straight: True Origins of the Frisbee."

Today, the Frisbee is almost as popular in Scandinavia, Australia, Japan, China, Italy and Germany as it is in America, he said.

The platter has spawned not just Ultimate Frisbee, but Frisbee Golf, in which the discs are thrown into baskets that function as holes (there is even a Professional Disc Golf Association); Freestyle Frisbee, which combines gymnastics and midair Frisbee tricks; the telegenic Canine Frisbee; Guts, a sort of Frisbee dodgeball in which teams fire the disc at each other from digit-threatening distances; and even attempts to set records in distance and time aloft, all governed by the World Flying Disc Federation.

For the average family or student gang headed to the park on a weekend, though, these organized permutations of Frisbeeology are the last things on their minds.

Many of them have a more fundamental question: How do I throw the darn thing so that it won't dive-bomb into the grass six feet after it leaves my hand?

Ms. Klain has the answers, and she was happy to demonstrate the three basic Frisbee throws one morning last week at Carnegie Mellon's stadium.

First, there is the standard backhand. The key, she said, is to grip the disc tightly, fingers curled under the lip of the disc, thumb on top. That will ensure a good spin, which is critical to the Frisbee's flight path.

Many people make the mistake of putting their index finger on the leading edge of the disc in an attempt to keep it level, she said, but that just acts as a brake on its velocity.

Second is the forehand flick. In this throw, the index and middle fingers are extended under the rim, with the thumb on top and the other two fingers curled into the palm. The crucial movement on the forehand flick is sharply flicking the wrist, she said.

Finally comes the hammer, an overhand throw least likely to be used in recreational Frisbee. Designed to get the Frisbee over top a defender, it is gripped the same way as the forehand flick, but the Frisbee starts out in a vertical position next to the thrower's face.

Done correctly, it ends up rotating into a flat, upside-down spin. "It's the real crowd pleaser," she said.

Ms. Klain has perfected her backhand to the point that she was able to effortlessly fling it 55 yards in the stadium last week. "I really need to get that up to 60 yards or more," she said.

While she can carry out the Frisbee throws superbly, it takes people like Louis Bloomfield and Ralph Lorenz to explain why her discs fly through the air so well.

Dr. Bloomfield is a physics professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book, "How Everything Works: Making Physics Out of the Ordinary." Dr. Lorenz is a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and author of the book, "Spinning Flight: Dynamics of Frisbees, Boomerangs, Samaras and Skipping Stones."

Although it may not look like it, the Frisbee is actually a wing, Dr. Bloomfield said. When it is thrown with a slight upward angle, the air that swoops underneath the Frisbee pushes it upward, and the air rushing over the top creates a slight low-pressure area that increases its lift, just as it does with an airplane's wing.

It's important not to tilt the Frisbee up too much before throwing it, though, Dr. Lorenz noted. "Throwing it with a relatively low angle of attack is actually key because it keeps the drag down."

If the Frisbee were thrown without a spin, the moving air would quickly flip it. But the spin turns it into a sort of gyroscope or midair spinning top, Dr. Bloomfield said.

Just as a spinning top that is nudged will maintain its vertical orientation and just tip slightly to the left or right, a spinning Frisbee will tend to maintain its horizontal orientation and tip slowly to one side or the other.

Eventually, as the Frisbee loses momentum, gravity will overcome the lift, and the spin will send it into a descending arc, usually to the left if thrown by a right-hander, and to the right if flung by a lefty.

As a practical matter, the best way to make a Frisbee curve deliberately is to angle it downward in the direction you want it to arc before throwing it, Ms. Klain noted.

Dr. Lorenz has gone far beyond just analyzing Frisbee flight. He has figured out a way to attach sensors to the bottom of a Frisbee to measure such things as acceleration, surface pressure, angle to the sun and magnetic field.

The readings are useful for understanding more than just the aerodynamics of spinning discs.

Because many space probes are put into a spin before they approach a distant planet or moon, he said, scientists can compare sensor readings taken on Earth before the probe was launched to the ones being transmitted from space to estimate how thick or thin the planet's atmosphere is.

But they also need to figure out whether the readings are being distorted by wobbling in the probe, and the Frisbee experiments can actually help them determine this, he said.

Back here on Earth, the Frisbee world distance record is currently held by Christian Sandstrom of Sweden, who hurled one about 820 feet (nearly three football fields) in 2002.

The flattest Frisbees can now be thrown so far, Mr. Kennedy said, that experienced disc golf players are considering competing on real golf courses, instead of the smaller customized courses they currently use.

Disc golf also has generated nearly 100 different types of Frisbees -- thin, flat ones for "drivers," heavier ones for "irons" and smaller, domed ones for "putters."

Aside from these embellishments, though, no one is attempting to alter the basic Frisbee design, the experts said. "I mean, how do you improve on simplicity?" asked inventor Morrison.

He even discarded some earlier attempts at innovation. At one point, Mr. Morrison said, he added raised ridges to the Frisbee's upper surface, hoping to increase lift. But if the catcher didn't grasp the disc just right, the ridges really hurt. "I called them rotary fingernail clippers," he said.

There is a competing product called the Aerobie, a flat disc with a doughnut hole that can be thrown for much greater distances than a Frisbee.

"But I don't really consider that the same kind of object," Mr. Kennedy sniffed.

And there is some continuing research on the materials used to make Frisbees, said David Waisblum, Frisbee product manager for Wham-O. Urethane is being added to the plastic mix of some Frisbees to make them more rubbery and firm, particularly for Canine Frisbee, he said.

And some Freestyle Frisbee players use tricks to enhance the "nail delay," a maneuver similar to spinning a basketball on your fingertip. Some freestyle players, Mrs. Waisblum said, will wear fake fingernails and coat the bottom of the Frisbee with silicone spray to lengthen the spin.

It's amazing to think people are going to all this trouble over a product that Wham-O actually delayed promoting for a year so it could push what it thought was a much hotter item -- the Hula Hoop.

Over the decades, though, the Frisbee has maintained a much more enduring and widespread popularity.

Could it be that Frisbees are now much more deserving of being called America's pastime than baseball?

While baseball's popularity is fading, Frisbee-mania just keeps growing.

"I think one of the main advantages that the flying discs have over traditional sports," Mr. Kennedy said, "is that people as young as 2 or 3 all the way up to people who are in their 80s or 90s can play disc sports."


Mark Roth can be reached at mroth@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1130


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