The ancient Greeks threw the discus as part of the Olympic pentathlon, but the heavy clay disk was only for throwing, not catching. No doubt children over the intervening centuries found any number of round objects they could spin through the air, but the actual Frisbee dates only from the 1940s.
The disk-flying craze started on college campuses, independently on the East and West Coasts. Students at those bastions of intellectual rigor Harvard and Yale amused themselves by flinging empty pie tins from the William R. Frisbie bakery. The Bridgeport, Connecticut, establishment had been in business since 1870, so it’s possible that the shallow tin pans had been sent flying by earlier generations. Since the pans most likely were unstable in the air, they would have been difficult to throw and catch with any degree of reliability.
An inventor was needed.
Such a man presented himself in California in the 1950s. Walter Frederick Morrison was the son of the inventor of sealed-beam automobile headlights. He was fascinated with flying saucers and the possibility of aliens from outer space, concepts much in vogue then. To mimic the shape and hovering ability of a flying saucer, Morrison invented a lightweight toy metal disk. He later switched to plastic and marketed his product to the Wham-O company in San Gabriel. In 1957 the first “Flyin’ Saucers” made their appearance in West Coast stores.
The saucers proved popular right away, but only in southern California. Wham-O’s president, Richard Knerr, then went on a promotional tour of East Coast colleges, handing out free saucers to create a buzz. He was amazed to find Ivy Leaguers already throwing disks—pie tins that they called Frisbies. Knerr changed the name of his toy to Frisbee, trademarked it in 1959, and started a national mania.