Respect for George Nissen from Rebound Therapy
Published in the The Guardian newspaper on 1st May 2010 and reproduced with thanks
George Peter Nissen, inventor and gymnast, born 3 February 1914; died 7 April 2010
George Nissen, who has died aged 96, was an inveterate and sometimes eccentric inventor. He registered more than 40 patents, but his name is synonymous with his first invention, the trampoline. His life-changing idea was formulated when, as a child, he visited touring circuses. Watching the trapeze artists drop into the safety nets and bounce up and flip, he imagined how exciting it would be if they could keep bouncing and flipping.
Nissen called the concept "rebound tumbling" and built his first bouncing rig while he was a student. He registered the trademark "trampoline" – naming it after el trampolín, the Spanish for diving board – and in his first year of production, in the late 1930s, he sold about 10 to YMCAs and schools. That did not impress his father, who suggested that he had already satisfied demand. But Nissen was not so easily deterred, and by the mid-60s the trampoline had become so popular that he no longer tried to enforce the patent.
Nissen was born in Blairstown, Iowa, one of four children of Franklin and Catherine Nissen, Danish immigrants. The family moved to Cedar Rapids when he was young, and he took up gymnastics and diving at the local YMCA. In 1933, he started at the University of Iowa and during his time there, with the gymnastics coach Larry Griswold, set about building the first trampoline. Griswold would later partner Nissen in the Griswold-Nissen Trampoline and Tumbling Company, set up in 1941, and write the first instruction manual the following year.
Nissen had experimented in the family garage, using angle irons from the local junkyard for the frame and canvas from a tentmaker, with strips of inner-tubes from old car tyres to attach the canvas to the frame. With Griswold, he worked on a more sophisticated model with coiled springs, which had its first public appearance at the local YMCA camp. The bouncing rig proved hugely successful and Nissen began to believe that it could have a commercial future.
After graduating in 1937 with a business degree, he toured with his friends Jack Brown and Xavier Leonard as The Three Leonardos. They performed their acrobatic act at fairs in the US and in Mexico, where Nissen discovered the future name for his bouncing rig. When they returned to the US, they incorporated the trampoline into their act and toured schools. As intended, it generated commercial interest, but the second world war intervened. Nissen, ever adaptable, persuaded the US forces that the trampoline had training applications and sold them about 100.
The postwar development of the trampoline was marked out by a publicity stunt with a kangaroo, which Nissen hired for a photoshoot in Central Park, New York. He knew that by bouncing at one end of the trampoline, he could start the kangaroo bouncing at the other. The trick was for Nissen to time his jumps so that a picture could be taken of both himself and the kangaroo in mid-air.
The shoot was a huge success and the picture went round the world. Nissen did too, selling his product in Europe (the trampoline was particularly popular in eastern-bloc countries), Japan, South Africa and South America. However, there was chequered progress for trampolines in the US. They were hugely popular, but the "jump centres" that sprang up were unregulated, and injuries – and legal action – ensued.
Nissen tried to develop his invention by creating bouncing games, but the trampoline was developing organically. As well as being an invaluable training aid for many sports – it was de rigueur for divers – it was taking off as a sport in its own right.
The first world championships took place at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in 1964. A year later, the International Trampoline Federation was formed. Griswold and Nissen formed the US Tumbling and Trampoline Association in 1971. But Nissen had to wait until 2000 for his lifetime goal to be achieved. That year, the sport was accorded ultimate respectability when it was included in the Sydney Olympic Games.
Nissen himself was the best advertisement for the health benefits of his product. A brilliant gymnast and tumbler in his youth, he could still do handstands into his 80s and yoga headstands in his 90s.
He is survived by his wife, Annie, a Dutch acrobat whom he met in 1950 while she was performing for the Cole Brothers Circus in the US, and two daughters, Dagmar and Dian.