The Secret Origin of the Trampoline

At Rebounderz, it’s pretty clear that we love trampolines. We started digging around for the lesser known history about its invention, and we’re really excited to share it with you. When you’re done reading this, come on over to our trampoline park in Edison and jump around on this marvelous invention.

The year is 1930. The travelling circus has arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a wide-eyed 16-year-old boy watches in amazement at the acrobatic feats put on by the trapeze artists high above him. This young boy was George Nissen, and he had an idea. As he watched them dismount at the end of their routines, he took particular interest in the safety nets that they dropped onto from their swinging bars with a bounce. His time as a gymnast and swimmer got him thinking about what a performer could do if they continue bouncing and what types of tricks that might allow.

From there, Nissen began work on his first attempt, simply called a ‘bouncing rig.’ Built in his parents’ garage, this first device was made up only of a canvas sheet strapped to a rectangular steel frame. It wasn’t until 1934, with the assistance of his gymnastics coach at the University of Iowa, Larry Griswold, that the trampoline really started to take a more familiar shape. They recognized the device needed to provide more of a bounce than it was giving in order for tricks to really take form. From there, they connected the canvas to the frame with inner tubes from tires. When those proved to be bouncy but easily broken, the change was made to coil springs.

While he was a member of Iowa’s diving team, Nissen formed “The Three Leonardos.” No, they weren’t big fans of the leader of the Ninja Turtles about 50 years too early. They were a ‘rebound tumbling’ act that performed in Mexico in 1937! It was while he was in Mexico that Nissen learned the Spanish word for diving board — el trampolín. It wasn’t long after that he added an ‘e’ to the end and registered ‘trampoline’ as a trademark for his invention.

The trio went on to perform at school assemblies back in the United States. After their performances, they invited the children to try jumping on the trampoline, and it went over like gangbusters. 1942 rolled around and brought with it the formation of the Griswold-Nissen Trampoline & Tumbling Company and commercially available trampolines. Griswold, however, left the company shortly after its formation to focus on his own budding acrobatic career, under the name “The Diving Fool.”

Many people found new use for the trampoline — from the circus performers that inspired it and the children that proved its concept to the military using it to train American pilots and navigators during World War II. Nissen continued to improve his design, replacing the canvas that had been a fixture from the first attempt, with nylon webbing that had been developed for parachute straps.

Trampolines continued to be used in training, by both the American and Soviet space programs to get their astronauts used to changes in gravity and provide a full-body exercise in a more efficient manner. The trampoline’s gymnastics origin was fully realized at the first Trampoline World Championships, held at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1964. Trampolining finally became an official Olympic event at the Sydney Summer Olympics in 2000.

As WW2 raged on, Nissen decided to put his brother in charge of the company, as he joined the fight as a member of the Navy in 1943. After completing his service as a navigator on a destroyer, he joined St. Mary’s Pre-Flight Center, near Oakland, CA. He was pleased to learn upon his arrival that they already were using his invention.

While Nissen began to face competition from other companies producing their own trampolines, he continued to promote his invention in many demonstrations. At one such performance in Kansas City, he encountered a Dutch aerial acrobat by the name of Annie De Vries. She joined his act, and they were married in 1951.

One of the most amazing demonstrations Nissen put on took place in the middle of Central Park in New York. It was here that he rented a kangaroo to perform the demonstration with him. Yes, a real kangaroo. He found out that if he put the kangaroo at one end of the trampoline, he could jump on the other side and make the animal bounce as well.

As the 50’s continued, Nissen traveled around the world to demonstrate his invention, even going so far as to donate a trampoline to the Soviet Union. We’re not sure if it’s fate or irony that Russia would eventually win the first Olympic Gold awarded for trampolining in 2000.

When the 1950’s drew to a close, trampoline jump centers began to spring up across the US, making Nissen a multi-millionaire. However, due to widespread and consistent abuse of the Trampoline trademark, he allowed it to lapse early in the 1960’s.

George Nissen never lost his love for his original invention, going so far as to perform an acrobatic routine high atop a pyramid with a flattened top in Egypt. He was 63 years old when he did that. Though Nissen passed in 2010, his invention lives on in backyards, gymnasiums, and trampoline parks worldwide.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this profile of a man that only sought to elevate people to previously unreachable heights. If you want to pay tribute to George Nissen, call Rebounderz in Edison today! We want to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step.