Developed in 1934, trampolines were originally used to train astronauts or were used as a training tool for other sports.
They soon became popular in their own right and a sport was born.
The first modern trampoline was built by George Nissen and Larry Griswold around 1934 at the University of Iowa. It was initially used to train tumblers and astronauts and as a training tool to develop and hone acrobatic skills for other sports such as diving, gymnastics and freestyle skiing. People enjoyed the sensation so much, they began to trampoline for sheer fun, and it became popular in its own right.
When George was young, the circus paid a visit to his hometown. He carried water for the elephants, to get free admission.
His favourite act was the trapeze performers, especially their dismounts.
When he watched them falling into the net, and rebound with another trick he thought; “Jeez, if you wanted to, you could keep rebounding into other tricks!”
After school, in his spare time, George tinkered about throwing varies scraps of metal together in his parents' garage. In 1930 he strapped together a rectangular steel frame and a canvas sheet. It wasn’t as springy as he hoped but he called it a ‘bouncing rig’.
With the help of his gymnastics coach, Larry Griswold, he began working to create a more flexible contraption with a nylon sheet in University. He opened a small factory and began marketing the device but initially sales were slow. George would take them out one at a time and sold them by doing demonstrations.
After graduating university with a business degree, Nissen and two friends formed an acrobatics act and travelled to Mexico performing a hand balancing and tumbling routine. It was there that Nissen learned the Spanish word for diving board: el trampolin. George added an ‘e’ and registered “Trampoline” as a trademark for what would become the joy inducing device we all know and love today.
When World War 2 broke out, he began pitching his trampolines as training tools for the military and to NASA. He convinced officials that his devise could help pilots, parachutists and divers learn to physically control and orient themselves in the air. He sold more than 100 trampolines. In 1943 he joined the Navy. After the War he incorporated his business and began heavily promoting the trampoline.
In 1960 George rented a kangaroo for a photo op, to bounce with him in central park. In 1977 he scaled a pyramid in Egypt with his son-in-law and set up a trampoline.
Competing gymnastics and diving at university, Nissen thought it would also be great to have competitions in trampolining. He always told his dad that it would be in the Olympics some day to which his dad replied. "Yeah, yeah, yeah! It will be the year 2000 before that could happen!" First, Nissen got trampolines in schools and colleges. He then travelled to England to establish and manufacture trampolines abroad.
Nissen has established the sport in 40 countries and on all continents. Trampolining almost made it to the 1980 Olympics. It was a dream come true for George to be asked to bounce on the official trampolines at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, at 86 years old.
Nissen himself was the best example of the health benefits of his product. A gymnast and athlete all his life, he could still do handstands into his 80’s and yoga headstands in his 90’s. In 1951 he married Annie DvRries an acrobat in her own right who could “do the splits in the air”. Together they had two daughters. Nissen died in 2010 at the age of 96.