Who invented the trampoline? Well, genius comes in many forms, and can show itself at any age. In 1930, at just 16 years old, a young gymnast from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, imagined a device that could enhance the already enthralling performances of trapeze artists. Then, he built it.
Who Invented The Trampoline?
So, who was this boy genius who invented the trampoline? George Nissen, born in 1914, was a gymnast from the age of 10. Six years later, he watched trapeze artists in a traveling circus dismount from their dazzling flying acts and wished the acrobatics could continue. Rather than landing in a safety net and bouncing to a finale, what if the performers could keep bouncing, somersaulting, back-flipping and amazing the crowd? Inspired and determined, George went home, set up shop in his parents' garage, and built the first "bouncing rig" — what would become known as the trampoline.
Nissen's first trampoline was a large piece of canvas secured several feet above ground to a rectangular steel frame. Gymnastic tricks like flips and somersaults gained significant height when performed atop a trampoline, fulfilling Nissen's wish for added excitement in the sport. What began as this young man's quest for more impressive acrobatic feats turned into a full-fledged business and a lifelong association with the sport and recreation of trampolining.
The Trampoline Evolves
When researching who invented the trampoline, you'll find that Nissen continued his amateur gymnastics career at the University of Iowa. He must have brought his bouncing rig with him, because by 1934 he and his gymnastics coach, Larry Griswold, improved on the design. They added tires to the frame for extra rebounding ability, and later replaced the tires with coils for a more controlled spring.
A Name Is Trademarked
After graduating from college, Nissen took his gymnastics performances on the road. In 1937, he formed a "rebound tumbling act" called The Three Leonardos. It was while on a tour of Mexico that George's whimsical genius expressed itself once more. Besides being an accomplished gymnast, Nissen was also a talented swimmer and diver who narrowly missed making the 1932 Olympic diving team. Upon learning the Spanish word for diving board—trampolin—Nissen found the inspiration for his bouncing rig's trademark name: Trampoline.
A Company Is Born
Back in the United States, Nissen continued touring, bringing demonstrations to children in schools across the nation. As excited kids took their turn on the trampoline, one after another, it was clear the trampoline had universal appeal, and with it, market value. So, in 1942, the young genius and his coach formed the Griswold-Nissen Trampoline and Tumbling Company to build and market trampolines commercially.
Griswold left the company shortly after its founding to tour in his own acrobatic show under the stage name "The Diving Fool." Nissen continued traveling the country, holding demonstrations to help sell his invention. It was at one of these stops that Nissen met and married fellow acrobat, Annie de Vries, who soon joined his act. They had two daughters, Dian and Dagmar, both of whom excelled in trampolining and gymnastics, and have remained active proponents of the sport to this day.
World War II And Beyond
The second World War soon got in on the trampoline act, rather than interrupting it. Nissen worked with Navy pilots and navigators, with the trampoline serving as a combat-readiness training tool. The device proved valuable for increasing soldiers' fitness levels and for developing mid-air maneuverability. It is during this time that the canvas surface of the original trampoline gave way to nylon webbing. This was the same material that the military had developed to make parachute straps out of. In 1943, Nissen joined the Navy himself, serving as a navigator.
While deployed, he left the trampoline-manufacturing company in his brother's capable hands. After the war, Nissen landed in California where he worked as a flight instructor. Here again, pilots used Nissen's invention in training; in fact, they were doing so even before he arrived at St. Mary's Pre-Flight Center to begin work. Years after the war, as humans set their sights on conquering the moon, Nissen trained both American and Soviet astronauts using the trampoline. In fact, he had traveled to many places around the world, and donated a trampoline to the Soviet Union.
The 1950s And 60s
By the 1950s, gas stations joined in the fun, establishing "jump centers" for kids to play in while their parents refueled the family car. [Perhaps these playgrounds provided inspiration for what would later become McDonald's Playplaces, their version of an on-site playground]. Independent recreational jump centers followed, and Nissen enjoyed significant commercial success. Even celebrities joined in the fun; actor Yul Brynner and politician Richard Nixon proudly joined the list of trampoline enthusiasts known as "backyard jumpers."
In keeping with his creative, inventive tendencies, George once taught a brave kangaroo named Victoria how to use the trampoline. He recorded this astounding feat with a delightful photograph taken at a demonstration in New York's Central Park. The photograph captures Nissen's joy and nimbleness as he bounces high in the air with the equally agile kangaroo, just as high off the ground, opposite him. News outlets around the world reprinted the photograph, helping to spread the popularity of the trampoline.
Nissen continued to travel the country with his wife, Annie, and young daughters beside him. He extolled the virtues of the trampoline while setting up competitions designed to increase interest and participation in the sport. The popularity of the trampoline continued to grow. In 1964, London, England hosted the 1st Trampoline World Championships at the Royal Albert Hall. The winners of that first competition were Americans Dan Millman in the men's division, and Judy Wills in the women's division.
When researching who invented the trampoline, you'll find that trampoline competing reached its zenith, and fulfilled a long-held dream of Nissen's in 2000 when it became an official Olympic event at the Sydney games. Recalling that Nissen trained Soviet astronauts, it seems fitting that a Russian athlete won that first Olympic event. The trampoline event remains a fixture in the Olympic Games to this day.
The 1970s And 80s
By the 1970s, trampolines were commonplace in backyards across the country. Families bought trampolines for their kids to play on right at home, adding to the success of Nissen's company. Emboldened by tricks they'd seen performed by more experienced gymnasts, kids would push the limits of what they could do on a trampoline to impress their family and friends. As a result, multiple families filed lawsuits claiming that their children had sustained significant injuries while jumping on trampolines.
Over time, the insurance liabilities resulting from the injury lawsuits became more than the company could sustain. By 1989, George Nissen's trampoline business closed its doors for good. There are several other trampoline manufacturers in business today filling the continuing demand for Nissen's 89-year-old invention. Most trampolines now include safety nets to help prevent the kinds of injuries that, according to his daughter Dagmar, deeply saddened Mr. Nissen. We recommend the Zapapa brand, available on Amazon.com, for its 5-star rating and safety features.
When researching who invented the trampoline, you may find that Olympic gold-medalist Rosie MacLennan of Canada recommends that kids train with gymnastics professionals in a safe environment if they want to learn how to perform flips and more advanced tricks on the trampoline. She equates attempting dangerous moves without proper training to kids learning how to swim without supervision. If you eliminate the inherent risks by learning how to execute advanced moves properly, MacLennan says that the sport is "quite safe."
A Whimsical Genius's Legacy
George Nissen remained an agile gymnast and inventor throughout his long life. He improved designs for other gymnastic equipment including the pommel horse, parallel bars, and balance beams. After selling his company, he created the Laptop Exercycle for use on long flights—a marriage borne from his athletic pursuits and aeronautics experience combined.
A true sports pioneer, Nissen reinvigorated interest in trampolining when he created a new game called Spaceball. Combining elements of basketball and volleyball, players bounce atop a large trampoline while attempting to score against the other team. While the sport did not find the universal success that the trampoline itself did, Nissen called it one of his favorite inventions.
Nissen continued to travel the world as the preeminent icon of trampolining. In 1977, when he was 63, Nissen impressed onlookers with a trampoline performance on the flat surface atop an ancient pyramid in Egypt. At his birthday party in 1994, Nissen reportedly cleared the dining table and performed an impromptu handstand for delighted guests; he was a spry 80 years old.
George Nissen, the man who invented the trampoline, died at 96 years of age in 2010. What he left behind is an impressive and delightful treasure trove of accomplishments:
Above all, George Nissen left a unique legacy as the whimsical genius who invented the trampoline. Children, athletes, pilots, and astronauts around the world have Nissen to thank for that bouncy piece of equipment they use regularly for fun, exercise, and sport.