The up-and-down history of the trampoline
Despite the risks, trampolines are a popular way for kids to let off steam in the backyard. (Getty: Ambre Haller)
Who doesn’t like bouncing in the air for fun?
Australian Olympic trampoline judge David Wareham certainly does, as does his son, Adrian Wareham, who was inducted into the Gymnastics Australia hall of fame after representing his country at ten World Championships.
“Adrian once said ‘it gives you the sensation of being on the big dipper without paying for it’,” Mr Wareham said.
“It’s a sense of exhilaration – being up there and seeing what’s happening in front of you because it is a visual sport as well – the ‘cue in’ comes from actually visualising where you are and reacting from there.”
We owe the existence of the sport to another gymnast: George Nissen.
In 1930, the Iowa-born teenager was captivated by the way the highwire acrobats at a circus fell and then bounced into the safety mesh at the end of the act.
He thought all that bounciness could be incorporated into some other acrobatic act.
For gymnasts, being able to bounce in the air would enable a different routine from those carried out on a static mat.
‘The requisite bounciness’
Young George Nissen was a star gymnast at school and an accomplished diver, and only narrowly missed out taking part in the 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles.
After much tinkering, he cobbled together a frame from various bits of scrap iron. He attached a square of strong canvas to the frame using old inner tubes from car tyres, which gave it the requisite bounciness.
He took it to a summer camp and noticed its enormous popularity with the children. This was all the encouragement he needed.
After leaving college, Nissen became one of the Three Leonardos, an acrobatic trio, who performed in various fairs around the country.
George Nissen jumps on a trampoline with ‘Victoria,’ a giant red kangaroo, in New York in 1960. (Getty: Bettman)
In Mexico, Nissen came across the Spanish word for springboard – trampolin – and so he Anglicized it for his invention.
In 1941, he set up a company with a friend, calling it the Griswold-Nissen Trampoline and Tumbling Company. Orders for the invention were healthy, especially after refinements were made.
Properly designed springs replaced the old inner tubes, and the canvas surface now used a strongly woven nylon that had been developed to strengthen parachute straps for the military.
Everyone fell in love with the idea, even the military who found that trampoline exercises strengthened muscle and helped develop spatial awareness.
‘Teeth broken on the frame’
Nissen particularly wanted to promote this aspect and used the term ‘rebound tumbling’ instead of trampolining. It didn’t stop him from promoting it in a fun way, though.
A celebrated photograph shows him dressed in a suit and sharing his trampoline with a live kangaroo. In 1951 he married a Dutch acrobat called Annie and together they spread the trampolining word.
By 1960 there were jumping centres in all major cities. There were accidents, too, with teeth broken on the frame and a near-fatality when someone bounced on his head.
Today’s trampolines have padded frames and sometimes a webbed enclosure to stop people bouncing off altogether, harking back to the original safety net that inspired the invention.
Trampolining was recognised as a serious sport at Sydney’s Olympics in 2000, where Mr Wareham was a judge.
An annual trampolining competition in Switzerland awards the Nissen Cup.
Two gymnasts competing at the 50th Nissen Cup in 2018, the oldest international trampoline competition which was named after George Nissen. (Supplied: Nissen Cup)
Despite the risks it remains popular and elite-level competition provides an added incentive.
“[Kids] bounce on it and they get this feeling of exhilaration by using it, and it’s the sort of sport where you can never reach the ultimate – there’s always something new,” Mr Wareham says.
“In recent years we’ve seen the equipment improve as well, so much so that we’re getting those astonishing heights that people have witnessed.”
But for generations now, the trampoline has been one of the healthiest ways for children to let off steam in the backyard.
Experts say children still need to learn how to use them properly, because even a safety net enclosure doesn’t prevent accidents.
“They learn discipline and they learn they need to think in front all the time when they’re on the trampoline,” Mr Wareham says.
“You’re up in the air with absolutely no support – [so] it depends on what you’ve initiated in the take-off, where you’re going to go to and how you’re going to react in the air.
“It’s knowing where you’re going in the immediate future that is so important in life these days for every youngster — and oh it’s fun, oh yes!”
Experts say there has been an increase in the number of trampoline injuries being seen. (Flickr: SamuelSchultzerBagge)