Reading about George Nissen, one can’t help wishing he were still alive today. A modern-day Peter Pan, who trampolined daily and was doing handstands in his 80s and headstands in his 90s he must have been some Grandad.
The inventor of the modern day trampoline and pioneer of what is now an Olympic sport, Nissen was a man of boundless creativity. During his lifetime he registered 35 patents and was latterly honoured in the American Inventors Hall of Fame. Speaking in recent years he attributed his creativity to the fact that he never grew up. He said: ‘Children have tons of creativity. By the time you’re in college it begins to decline.’ To buck that trend: ‘You’ve got to watch kids. You learn from kids. And sometimes you have to act like a kid.’
Leaving college as a business graduate in 1937, he refused to follow the ‘corporate’ route, and instead – much to his father’s chagrin – he set off travelling with friends to Mexico. There, ‘The Leonardos’, as they styled themselves, performed acrobatic routines for cash and kept fit by working out at the local YMCAs. Here they practised with local gymnasts and divers, hence the Spanish word for his best-known invention, El Trampolin.
On returning home to Iowa, Dad thought it was time for George to get a proper job. Instead, George set about promoting the trampoline he had built in his garage as a student. He knew the kids loved it, as he had taken an early prototype to the local kids summer camp before he’d been travelling. So he set about organising a promotional tour which saw The Leonardos performing at more than 200 school assemblies a year. A mix of entertainment, fitness instruction and promotion, these tours encouraged a few sales to YMCAs and schools. But then wartime struck and even the positive-thinking Nissen thought his business would be ruined. Until he found his next opportunity.
The born publicist and entrepreneur saw a new niche for trampolines – in training the army – and he had his picture taken for the press showing cadets how to jump. He then came away with so many orders that he had to put off enlisting himself. His brother then looked after the business while he was in the Navy and during this period the design evolved. The original canvas beds were replaced with the same nylon webbing that was then being used for parachute straps and to this day a similar material is used.
Around 100 trampolines were sold to the army during the war. But then Nissen, with an almost missionary zeal, determined to take his invention round the world. First he travelled to England where he established a business base in Essex, then into Europe and Russia at the height of the Cold War. He always remained close to the gymnastics scene (after all he had been three times national intercollegiate champion)and not only did he engender a passion for trampolining among the Russians, which led them later to take home many medals, but he also arranged for athletes to compete in the United States. Both astute and selfless, he did much for developing sport around the world.
It was this commitment to developing trampolining which ultimately brought him his greatest prize -its place in the Olympics. For more than 50 years he worked with the international sports scene to achieve this goal, and then finally at Sydney 2000 he did a demonstration performance himself, aged 86. He sponsored the first World championships at the Albert Hall in 1964, and with his Dutch acrobat wife Annie he then travelled to South Africa and South America to spread the word. Trampolining, he said: ‘It’s like the king of all sports.’
But despite his boundless enthusiasm, Nissen’s invention in many ways got too big for him commercially. He lost control of his patent as copy-cat versions exploded onto the market and in the Fifties there sprung up huge numbers of unregulated ‘jump centres’ which ultimately caused a period of demise in the sport in the USA due to the large numbers of accidents reported and consequent law suits. As Newsweek commented: ‘What went up was plainly coming down.’ Nissen hated these centres as there was no proper supervision, but he was powerless to act.
Perhaps Nissen’s greatest achievement as a marketeer was his famous kangaroo photocall. He hired one from a Long Island animal supplier and managed to get a photo of both him and the kangaroo as if frozen in mid-air. The photo was published all over Europe, even in Yugoslavia. He said: ‘People thought it was the funniest thing and they’d just laugh and laugh.’
His most recent inventions included a ‘Bunsaver’ which was designed to cushion behinds during baseball and a ‘Laptop Exercycle’ which was intended to help with the problems caused by sitting cramped in airlines. He even dabbled in the movies, but found some of the people too distasteful. Sadly he died from complications with pneumonia on April 7th, 2010, aged 96, but he will forever be remembered as the father of trampolining. He attributed his good health in old age to the three things he loved best: working, loving and creating. And as he said himself: ‘When you see hundreds of kids jumping on trampolines you know that the idea was really worth something…more than just your bullshit.’