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George Nissen, 96, gymnast who invented trampoline

In the 1950s, Mr. Nissen jumped on a trampoline with a kangaroo in New York’s Central Park. In the 1950s, Mr. Nissen jumped on a trampoline with a kangaroo in New York’s Central Park. (New York Times)
By Dennis Hevesi
New York Times / April 14, 2010

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NEW YORK — One by one, the trapeze artists topped off their routines by dropping from their high-swinging bars into the net stretched below, then rebounding into somersaults, to the roar of the crowd at the traveling circus in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And one child in the stands began to wonder: Hey, what if there was a contraption that made it possible to keep on bouncing and flipping?

George Nissen, 16, who was a member of the high school gymnastics and diving teams, was soon tinkering in his parents’ garage, strapping together a rectangular steel frame and a canvas sheet. Though not 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 Mr. 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.

Then, in 1937, Mr. Nissen and two friends formed a traveling acrobatics act called the Three Leonardos and began performing across the Midwest and Texas and then in Mexico. It was there that he heard the Spanish word for diving board, el trampolin.

He added an E and registered Trampoline as a trademark for what has become a joy-inducing device for backyard tumblers, fitness freaks, and, since 2000, Olympic athletes.

Mr. Nissen, who devoted his life to promoting and manufacturing the trampoline, once renting a kangaroo to bounce with him in Central Park, died last Wednesday at a hospital near his home in San Diego. He was 96.

Dwight Normile, editor of International Gymnast, said of Mr. Nissen: “He took the device all over the world and gave them as gifts. He wanted everybody to know about the health benefits of bouncing on a trampoline.’’

George Peter Nissen was born in Blairstown, Iowa, one of four children of Franklin and Catherine Jensen Nissen.

Mr. Nissen started tumbling as a child at a local YMCA and continued in junior high and high school. At the University of Iowa, he was a three-time winner of the intercollegiate national gymnastics championship.

After making the first prototype trampoline, Mr. Nissen and Griswold, his college coach, opened a small factory in Cedar Rapids and began marketing the device. But initial sales were slow, and Griswold, who died in 1996, went out on tour as a comedic acrobat under the name the Diving Fool.

Mr. Nissen, however, continued to make and market trampolines, even persuading the military to buy them as a training tool for pilots and divers. He served in the Navy during World War II, then returned to Cedar Rapids to expand his company. Nissen Corp., which he sold in 1973, eventually produced a full range of gymnastics equipment.

Well into his later years, Mr. Nissen remained head over heels for his sport. In 1977, with his son-in-law Ron Munn, he scaled a pyramid in Egypt, one with a flattened top; set up a trampoline; and did some flips.

In 1951, Mr. Nissen married Annie De Vries, a high-wire artist from Holland who was performing with the Cole Brothers Circus in the United States. Besides his wife, he leaves two daughters, Dagmar Munn and Dian Nissen-Ramirez, and one grandchild.