George Nissen: Inventor of the trampoline

In 1930, the 16-year-old George Nissen watched in awe as trapeze artists performed their daring stunts at a travelling circus in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Seeing them dismount at the end of their routines, dropping from their swinging bars and bouncing into a safety net below set the keen gymnast and swimmer thinking about how the performers' act would be even more spectacular if they could continue bouncing and doing more tricks.

This led Nissen to come up with a piece of equipment he called a bouncing rig. Using his parents' garage as a workshop, he simply strapped a canvas sheet to a rectangular steel frame. In 1934, with Larry Griswold, his gymnastics coach at the University of Iowa, Nissen put more bounce into it by connecting the canvas to the frame using tyre inner tubes. (These were later replaced by coil springs.)

Nissen – who as a swimmer had been a member of his school's diving team – formed the "rebound tumbling" act the Three Leonardos in 1937 and performed in Mexico, where he discovered that the Spanish for a diving board was el trampolín. He added an "e" and registered "Trampoline" as a trademark for the invention.

Back in the United States, the trio performed at school assemblies, invited children to have a go on the contraption and found that it proved popular. Then, in 1942, the Griswold-Nissen Trampoline & Tumbling Company was formed, making trampolines commercially, although Griswold soon pulled out to concentrate on performing his own acrobatic act as "the Diving Fool".

The trampoline's use extended from circus tumblers and children to the training of American pilots and navigators during the Second World War. During this time, Nissen replaced the canvas with nylon webbing, which was being developed for parachute straps.

Later, American and Soviet astronauts used the trampoline in their training. The first Trampoline World Championships were held at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in 1964 and won by the Americans Dan Millman (men's) and Judy Wills (women's). Trampolining eventually became an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Born in Blairstown, Iowa, in 1914, George Nissen was brought up in nearby Cedar Rapids. He joined his school gymnastics team at the age of 10, then a YMCA tumbling team that performed locally. Also a keen swimmer, he said he narrowly missed out on a place in the US Olympic diving squad in 1932.

Nissen left his brother to run his trampoline business when, in 1943, he joined the US Navy. After serving as a navigator on a destroyer, he became a flight instructor at St Mary's Pre-Flight Center, near Oakland, California, which was already using his invention.

In the post-war years, when Nissen faced competition from other companies and the first national "rebound tumbling" competition was held, he continued to promote the trampoline in demonstrations. At one of these in Kansas City, he met a Dutch aerial acrobat called Annie De Vries, invited her to join his act and married her in 1951.

For another demonstration, in Central Park, New York, he rented a kangaroo to perform with him. He discovered that he could put it at one end of the trampoline and, by bouncing at the other end, make it bounce, too.

During the 1950s, he took his invention round the world and donated a trampoline to the Soviet Union. There was some irony in the fact that Russia won the first Olympic gold medals for trampolining in the 2000 Olympics.

At the end of the 1950s, jump centres started to spring up across the US and Nissen was making millions of dollars a year. He even cited the then Vice-President, Richard Nixon, and the actor Yul Brynner as "backyard jumpers".

However, with such wide abuse of his Trampoline trademark by other companies, he let it lapse in the early 1960s. There was also bad publicity from cases of people getting injured.

Nissen revived the trampoline's popularity in the US by inventing the game of Spaceball, combining basketball and volleyball skills. Players have to throw a ball past their opponent, through a tunnelled, double-netted gantry, while bouncing. At the same time, Nissen produced new designs for gymnastics equipment such as parallel bars, pommel horses and balance beams.

But Nissen's enthusiasm for his original invention never waned. In 1977, he performed acrobatics in Egypt on a trampoline on top of a pyramid with a flattened top.

Nissen eventually sold his company but continued to come up with inventions such as the Laptop Exercycle for passengers on long-haul flights.

George Peter Nissen, inventor, businessman and acrobat: born Blairstown, Iowa 3 February 1914; married 1951 Annie De Vries (two daughters); died San Diego, California 7 April 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada