When An Invention Reached New Heights

George Nissen, inventor of the trampoline, died on April 7 at 96, but not before the acrobatics he first tried on the “bouncing rig” he built as a 16-year-old in 1930 (a canvas sheet stretched across a steel frame) became an Olympic event. Nissen was 86 and still capable of executing somersaults on his invention when he traveled to Sydney to watch the newly recognized sport, The New York Times reports.

More than six decades after he constructed the first trampoline in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a pixie of a Russian woman named Irina Karavaeva pinned her chestnut hair back with barrettes. She smiled sweetly, pounced some 20 feet in the air, somersaulted, pirouetted and jumped even higher, straight toward the sport’s inaugural gold medal. The ballerina in the sky and 11 other competitors gave Olympic wings to Nissen’s lifelong dream. ‘I’ve been waiting 50 years for this,’ said Nissen.”

At 16, Nissen, who was a member of the gymnastics and diving teams at his high school, was soon tinkering in his parents’ garage, strapping together a rectangular steel frame and a canvas sheet. Even though it was not quite as springy as he had hoped, he called it a bouncing rig. That was in 1930.

It would be several years later, while a business major at the University of Iowa, that Nissen and his gymnastics coach, Larry Griswold, would work together to make a more flexible contraption with a nylon sheet. They still called it a bouncing rig.

Nissen devoted his life to promoting and manufacturing the trampoline – once renting a kangaroo to bounce with him in Central Park. He spoke of his enduring goal to see trampolining become an Olympic sport. For years, his friends told him he was just dreaming.

“They said, ‘George, it will be the year 2000 before trampoline is ever in the Olympics,’ ” Nissen said in an interview with International Gymnast.

They were right. “He was at those Sydney Olympics in 2000, 86 years old at the time,” Dwight Normile, editor of International Gymnast magazine said, “and they actually invited him to bounce on the official trampoline.”

Photo by Nissen Family.

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