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Living the Dream (morning ceremony)

  • Date: 05/08/2010
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Many of you have heard me say that The University of Akron is a place where you can dream and dare and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    And I say that, because that is what the magic of education is all about…that is the magic of what a university is all about.  It allows you to pursue your dreams.  It prepares you to push your limits, or to eliminate them altogether.  No dream is out of reach for those willing to respond creatively, and that is what entrepreneurship is all about. 

    You see, the defining characteristic of entrepreneurship is the act of innovation – offering new products or processes that add value to our lives.  Entrepreneurs create value by carving out a niche in a market that may not currently exist.  

    Walter Fredrick Morrison was such an individual.  Certainly not a household name, Fred Morrison developed what has become a staple of university campuses and family picnics, and is representative of the carefree days of summer to which we all are looking forward.  Morrison perfected the flying disc, or as it is better known, the Frisbee. 

    Morrison’s entrepreneurial spirit was fueled by his lifelong fascination with flight.  He served as an American fighter pilot during World War II.  In fact, he was shot down and held captive as a POW for 48 days in Stalag 13, Germany’s infamous prison camp. 1

    Morrison did not invent the flying disc.  What Morrison provided was a superior product, carving out a niche and creating a market with value.

    The concept of flying discs actually goes back hundreds of years.  For example, Leonardo da Vinci was sketching disc-like objects as early as the 15th century, and the flying disc-shaped clay targets used in trapshooting date back to the 19th century. 2

    Morrison’s passion for creating a better flying disc came to him in 1937, while tossing a popcorn-can lid with a friend on the beaches of Santa Monica, California.  First, he determined that cake pans flew better than lids and, with his understanding of aeronautics, his dream was to make these discs fly farther and straighter.  Second, he discovered, early on, a profitable market for his product.

    While on the beach one day, Morrison was offered 25 cents for the cake pan he was tossing, a pan that he had purchased from a nearby store for only a nickel.  Impressed with the profit margin, he developed a small beachfront business where he sold “Flying Cake Pans,” until World War II broke out.

    After the war, he spent his spare time drawing up plans for more aerodynamic discs that also were less dangerous to catch.  Not only did the metal pans make a piercing sound when thrown, they could cause injury if not caught properly. To make matters worse, after a few run-ins with a hard surface, the pans would crack or often develop sharp edges that cut hands. 

    Morrison realized that success in creating the flying disc was not so much in the design as it was in the material.  Therefore he decided to change his flying disc from metal to polymer.

    He collaborated with a friend to form a company called Partners in Plastic, or Pipco.  Their polymer flying discs were more durable and certainly easier to handle.  They marketed the product under the brand name, “Flyin’ Saucers,” cashing in on the many reported UFO sightings of that time. 3

    Morrison continued to refine his flying disc, which he renamed the Pluto Platter, and began selling them for a dollar each at county fairs.  Curiosity was strong, and demand was even stronger.  In fact, some potential customers thought the plastic disc followed an invisible wire.  Capitalizing on that myth, Morrison offered the disc for free if customers were willing to pay one dollar for the invisible wire.

    It wasn’t long before the Pluto Platter caught the attention of Wham-O Manufacturing, which already had gained national attention with its new product, the Hula Hoop.  After purchasing the franchise from Morrison, Wham-O decided to change the name of the flying plastic disc to the Frisbee.  The name change followed a promotional tour of college campuses in which Wham-O’s president encountered a disc-tossing craze by students at Yale University, using pie plates from a Bridgeport, Connecticut bakery named the Frisbie Pie Company. 4

    The Frisbee quickly became an international phenomenon, uniting the world in a game of fun.  Morrison encouraged Frisbee enthusiasts to create their own games and to experiment.  They did so by inventing everything from backyard games of toss and catch that often included the family dog, up through international sporting competitions.

    In the late 1960s, a New Jersey high school invented Ultimate Frisbee, which involved elements of soccer, football and basketball.  Today, some 600 colleges and universities in 32 countries play the sport.  Later on, Frisbee Golf was introduced, complete with professional playing courses and associations. 5

    But the Frisbee’s value advanced well beyond sports and recreation.  In the late 1960s, the U.S. military invested $400,000 to study the Frisbee’s aerodynamics using wind tunnels and even built a special Frisbee-launching mechanism to test a prototype flare launcher. And in 1991, during Operation Desert Shield, the military used Frisbees to boost the morale of 20,000 American soldiers who were stationed in Saudi Arabia. 6

    Today, an estimated 9 out of 10 Americans have tossed a Frisbee.  And since its introduction 50 years ago, nearly 300-million Frisbees have been sold, which is more than baseballs, basketballs and footballs combined.  Older versions are now becoming collectors’ items valued at many times their original worth. 7

    No, Fred Morrison did not invent the flying disc, but his entrepreneurial spirit and inquisitiveness led him to his own special place…to his own special dream. 

    Innovative thinkers like Morrison are not only smart and imaginative, they also are alert, flexible and responsive to change and variation.  They see success where others don’t.  They create a market that others have overlooked. 

    Hopefully during your time here at The University of Akron, you, too, have learned the importance of entrepreneurship and its role in advancing America's economic competitiveness.  And, I hope you have become more of an entrepreneurial, innovative, disciplined and well-rounded thinker.

    If so, you need only the willingness to take chances and make choices that create new knowledge and new technologies and quickly translate those discoveries into marketable products and services.

    So, I urge you to dream big, to do great things and to set your sights high, because… 

    In the words of Goethe:  “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic to it.  Begin it now!”

    * * *

    References 

    1. History of the Frisbee, www.ultimatehandbook.com
    2. www.inventors.about.com and www.mctrapshootingteam.com
    3. Frisbee History, www.ideafinder.com
    4. www.ideafinder.com
    5. www.inventors.about.com and www.answers.com
    6. www.inventors.about.com
    7. www.answers.com and Frisbee History, www.ideafinder.com
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