Among coffee aficionados, the AeroPress is a revelation. A small, $30 plastic device that resembles a plunger makes what many consider to be the best cup of coffee in the world. Proponents of the device claim that drinks made with the AeroPress are more delicious than those made with thousand-dollar machines. Perhaps best of all, the AeroPress seems to magically clean itself during the extraction process.
There’s really nothing bad to say about the device other than the fact that it’s a funny-looking plastic thingy. Then again, its inventor, Stanford professor Alan Adler, is a world renowned inventor of funny-looking plastic thingies; while Adler’s Palo Alto based company Aerobie is best known today for its coffee makers, the firm rose to prominence in the 1980s for its world-record-setting flying discs.
This is the story of how Adler and Aerobie dispelled the notion of industry-specific limitations and found immense success in two disparate industries: toys and coffee.
How Alan Adler Became a Frisbee Entrepreneur
Alan Adler in the mid-1980s with an early Aerobie Pro ring
In 1938, a man named Fred Morrison was out on Santa Monica Beach with his wife when he found a pie tin. The two began tossing it back and forth and another beach-goer approached Morrison, offering him 25 cents for the tin — five times its retail price in stores. Morrison saw potential for a market.
Upon returning from World War II, he designed an aerodynamically improved plastic disc, and sold it at trade shows as the Flyin-Saucer, with the sales pitch “The Flyin-Saucer is free, but the invisible wire is $1.” After making about $2 million off his invention, Morrison sold it to toy company Wham-O in 1957, where it was renamed the “Frisbee.”
Enter Edward “Steady Ed” Hedrick, the founding father of the modern Frisbee. Hedrick reworked the rim thickness and top design of the disc, making it more aerodynamic and accurate, and is credited with propelling the Frisbee into mainstream popularity. A true man of his craft, he requested his ashes be molded into memorial Frisbees and given to family and close friends upon his death.
The Frisbee went largely unchanged for many years. Then, Alan Adler came along.
Throughout the 1960s, Adler worked as an engineer in the private sector, designing things that the average person rarely sees: submarine and nuclear reactor controls, instrumentation systems for military aircraft, and optics. He also lectured and mentored engineering students at Stanford University, where he taught a course on sensors. “I was never happier than when I was learning a new discipline,” he tells us.
This curiosity led to his pursuit of a diverse range of hobbies; as “the type of person who always seeks ways to make things better,” his hobbies invariably led to inventions. Today, he owns over 40 patents — some of which are in surprising fields.
As an amateur astronomer in the early 2000s, he ended up inventing a new type ofparaboloid mirror and writing a computer program, Sec, that assisted the way astronomers select secondary mirrors. He developed an interest in sailing and proceeded to design a sailboat that won the Transpac race (from San Francisco to Hawaii). Recently, he took up playing the Shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute, and has already constructed several dozen designs.
A few of Adler’s experimental Shakuhachi flutes
Adler had always been fascinated by the magical quality of flight, and, according to onepublication, “combines the skill of an engineer with the skills of a practical dreamer.” In the mid-1970s, he began toying with the idea of creating a flying disc — an object that would be “easy for the average person to throw with very little effort.” He retired to his workshop and began chipping away at prototype designs, going through dozens of iterations before developing the Skyro in 1978.
Skyro throwing pictorial; Photo taken at Stanford Special Collections Library
The Skyro relied on a basic aerodynamics principle: a flying ring requires an equal amount oflift in the back and front. Unfortunately, the back end of the disc always caught the downdraft of the front, had a smaller lifting force, and prevented a stable, balanced flight. To combat this, Adler fine tuned the molding of the Skyro to create an “extremely low-drag shape.”
He took his new design to Parker Brothers, a toy manufacturer, met with one of their sales managers, and “went out in the parking lot to throw discs around for a while.” The manager was blown away by the disc’s ease of flight, but it was made out of plastic and he insisted it was too hard for recreational use. Adler had included instructions on how to line the edges with soft rubber during the manufacturing process, but this technique had never been explored, and Parker Brothers said it was impossible.
So, Adler took matters into his own hands. He went to Mother Lode Plastics, paid them “several thousand dollars,” and had custom prototype molds made. He then brought his completed vision back to Parker Brothers, who bought the rights to his invention. “They didn’t have the foresight to do something that hadn’t been done,” Adler tells us. But he did, and this wouldn’t be the last time he forged new ground as an inventor.
Early Skyro packaging; Photo taken at Stanford Special Collections Library
Under Parker Brothers’ control, the Skyro sold about a million units, according to Adler, but that “wasn’t enough to maintain their interest,” and the rights were returned to him in the early 1980s.
The Skyro had one major issue: it had to be thrown at a very particular speed in order for it to fly in a straight trajectory. When it was thrown at the right speed, it flew insane distances — from home plate, one man threw a Skyro out of Dodger Stadium — but for the average consumer, it could be difficult to determine this speed. Adler went back to the drawing board.
Six long years ensued. By day, Adler taught classes and consulted; by night, he developed the ultimate flying disc. In the January 1984, in his garage/laboratory, Adler designed a ring-flight simulator on his computer and realized that achieving a perfect balance at any speed was possible. To achieve this, he’d have to create an airfoil (a wing or blade) around the perimeter of the disc that allowed for “50% greater lift slope when flying forward than backward.”
On his fourth prototype, Adler had a major breakthrough: he molded a spoiler lip around the outside of the rim. He took his new model out to a big field on Stanford’s campus, and thrusted it into the sky; the disc flew “as if sliding on an invisible sheet of ice.”
Adler’s breakthrough prototype of the Aerobie Pro ring; Photo taken at Stanford Special Collections Library
“The first time I threw the Aerobie, I was in a state of euphoria,” Adler recalls. “It made such an impact on me. It went so far with such little effort.” Within six months, Adler’s first disc, The “Aerobie Pro,” went into independent production under Adler’s new company, Superflight, Inc (known today as Aerobie, Inc). Adler recalls the thrill of releasing his accessible invention:
“For years, in my consulting work, I worked on things the average person wouldn’t buy; it was a great pleasure to transition into products with much broader utility and distribution. Plus, discs are a whole lot of fun. When you see a beautiful flight, it elevates your whole soul.”
Girl with Aerobie Pro; Photo taken at Stanford Special Collections Library
A team of Aerobie enthusiasts; Photo taken at Stanford Special Collections Library
The Aerobie disc’s story — zany college engineering professor invents incredible flying toy — made for a good headline. Adler says this led to a “fabulous run of luck with publicity,” which led to the disc’s early success:
“We were on all of the networks: The New York Times, People Magazine — just about all the major news sources we wanted covered us. Stanford’s news service sent out 220 press releases about the disc.”
But Adler also got creative. He contacted Scott Zimmerman, a seven-time Frisbee World Champion, and involved him in a number of publicity stunts through the mid-1980s. In 1986, Zimmerman threw an Aerobie Pro 1,257 feet (383.1 meters) at Fort Funston in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, setting a Guinness World Record for “longest throw of an object without any velocity-aiding feature;” in 1987, Zimmerman, fully dressed in George Washington regalia, taped a silver dollar to an Aerobie and hurled it across the Potomac River; in 1988, he flung an Aerobie over Niagara Falls.
Adler offered a $1,000 reward to whoever could break the Guinness record set by Zimmerman. In 2003, Erin Hemmings threw the disc 1,333 — over a quarter of a mile — and collected the money. His record throw was in the air for “more than 30 seconds.”
By 1986 — two years into production — the Aerobie Pro had sold 1 million units in the United States, and another 400,000 abroad in Canada, the U.K., and Germany. Adler became a “folk hero” on the Stanford campus; the school’s bookstore sold 6,680 Aerobies in only a 10 month period — one for every two students. At the time, Adler had a goal: to beat the Frisbee’s all time sales of 10 million units. Today, he’s just about done that, he tells us: “It’s been a huge success.”
While the flying ring has been Aerobie’s best-selling toy product, the company has released an array of other aerodynamically sound toys — 18, to be exact — ranging from a football with fins to the Dogobie, a “dog-proof” disc.
Aerobie’s product line
Aerobie has also undergone a transition from selling to toy retailers to selling to sporting good stores, according to Aerobie’s business manager, Alex Tennant, who has just returned from the New York Toy Fair:
“When I came to work here twenty years ago, our largest segment of customers was toy stores; now 80+% of our sales are to sporting goods retailers. Our products sell year after year in sporting goods stores whereas toy stores and toy departments tend to feel that they must sell whatever is new.”
Adler says the mainstream toy industry has a tendency to push out new products every three years. “Parker Brothers, for instance, has a quota of ten new toys every year at the NY Toy Fair,” he tells us. Aerobie finds this practice counter-intuitive, and goes against the grain:
“A lot of companies feel the need to release new products; they’ll release products that never really deserved to be sold! They’re just not that good. We don’t look at it that way: we only release products that we think are innovative and offer excellent play value. Companies often spoil products by revising them in an effort to make them new.”
Aerobie in original packaging (1985); Photo taken at Stanford Special Collections Library
Conversely, Aerobie has stuck with a relatively small list of products (18, over a 30 year business), and has never had to discontinue a product (this is a routine practice at major toy manufacturers).
But as massively popular as the Aerobie Pro has been, it’s now the company’s number two best-selling product. Seven years ago, Adler dramatically shifted out of the toy market and into the coffee business.
How Aerobie Disrupted the Coffee Game
Source: rcakewalk (Flickr)
The AeroPress was conceived at Alan Adler’s dinner table. The company was having a team meal, when the wife of Aerobie’s sales manager posed a question: “What do you guys do when you just want one cup of coffee?”
A long-time coffee enthusiast and self-proclaimed “one cup kinda guy,” Adler had wondered this many times himself. He’d grown increasingly frustrated with his coffee maker, which yielded 6-8 cups per brew. In typical Adler fashion, he didn’t let the problem bother him long: he set out to invent a better way to brew single cup of coffee.
He started by experimenting with pre-existing brewing methods. Automatic drip makers were the most popular way to make coffee, but “coffee connoisseurs” seemed to prefer the pour-over method — either using a Melitta cone (or other variety), or French Press. Adler quickly found the faults in these devices.
The Melitta cone, a device you place over your cup with a filter and pour water into, has “an average wet time of about 4-5 minutes,” according to Adler. The longer the wet time, the more acidity and bitterness leech out of the grounds into the cup. Adler figured this time could be dramatically reduced, quelling bad-tasting byproducts.
It struck Adler that he could use air pressure to shorten this process. After a few weeks in his garage, he’d already created a prototype: a plastic tube that used plunger-like action to compress the flavors quickly out of the grounds. He brewed his first cup with the invention, and knew he’d made something special. Immediately, he called his business manager Alex Tennant.
Tennant tasted the brew, and stepped back. “Alan,” he said, “I can sell a ton of these.”
A year of “perfecting the design” ensued: Adler tried out different sizes and configurations, and at first “didn’t understand the right way to use [his] own invention.” The final product, which he called the AeroPress, was simple to operate: you place a filter and coffee grounds (2-4 scoops) into a plastic tube, pour hot water into the tube (at an optimal of 165-175 degrees), and stir for ten seconds.
Now comes the fun part: you insert the “plunger” into the tube and slowly press down; the air pressure forces the water through the grounds and into your coffee mug that’s (hopefully) positioned below. This produces “pure coffee” that is close to espresso in strength, and can be diluted with additional water. The process of plunging the tube also self-cleans the device, but Adler says this was simply “serendipitous.” After all, great inventions, he says, “always require a little luck.”