Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Paula. Paula Wonders, “What makes a Frisbee fly? ” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Paula!
What's that? Up there in the sky! Is it a flying saucer? Nope! Well…kind of! It's not an unidentified flying object, also known as a UFO. In fact, it's an identified flying object, which would make it an IFO! What are we talking about? The Frisbee, of course!
If you've ever been on a picnic or played at the beach, then you've most likely played with a Frisbee at some point in your life. If you're like many kids, the Frisbee may be one of your favorite toys to play with.
With a simple flick of the wrist, you can send the plastic disc flying through the air in a wide, graceful arc. It's a fun and simple game to play with a friend…or even man's best friend. That's right! Even dogs can learn how to catch a Frisbee!
How do Frisbees fly so gracefully through the air? Are they powered by invisible fairy wings? After all, you won't get the same result if you try tossing one of your mom's nice dinner plates to a friend!
There's no magic powering the Frisbee. It's pure science, and you might already be familiar with the primary forces responsible for a Frisbee's flight. But first, let's look back at the Frisbee's humble beginnings.
Way back in 1871, college students would toss empty Frisbie Pie Company pie tins back and forth, shouting "Frisbie!" as they did so. In 1948, Walter Frederick Morrison and Warren Franscioni invented a plastic disc that would fly better than empty pie tins.
They called it the "Flying Saucer," and Morrison eventually sold an improved version of the disc to Wham-O in 1955. Originally marketed as the "Pluto Platter," Wham-O released their version of this aerodynamic flying disc in 1957. The name was changed to Frisbee a year later, although the company misspelled the name of the original pie company.
Frisbees fly so well through the air thanks to their shape and the fact that they rotate. When you flick your wrist to send a Frisbee flying to a friend, you start the Frisbee spinning rapidly. It acts like a gyroscope, building angular momentum in the process.
Angular momentum gives a Frisbee stability in flight. It's also what allows a Frisbee to stay in the air so long and travel long distances.
But why does a Frisbee fly at all? As noted earlier, you're not going to get the same results if you toss your dinner plate like a Frisbee toward the sink. (We don't recommend trying that at home!)
The curved top surface of a Frisbee creates lift when it's thrown. Wider in the middle and tapering toward the edges, Frisbees are shaped a bit like an airplane's wing.
According to a scientific principle known as the Bernoulli principle, lift is created because air travels more quickly above a Frisbee than it does below it. This creates lower air pressure above the Frisbee. The higher air pressure below the Frisbee pushes it upward, creating lift and allowing it to fly through the air in much the same way that airplanes can fly through the air.
If you don't believe the Frisbee's shape has anything to do with its ability to fly, you can test your hypothesis for yourself. Simply flip the Frisbee upside down and give it a toss. You'll see vastly different results!