Pioneer of the Trampoline
(Editor's Note: George Nissen passed away on April 7, 2010.)
A lifetime of learning, fueled by physical fitness and Depression-era determination, has carried George Nissen (BSC37) through to the venerable age of 95.
Today, this UI College of Commerce grad and inventor of the trampoline is still in the business of inventing. The former standout gymnast also still performs handstands.
Hailing from the small town of Blairstown, Iowa, George moved to nearby Cedar Rapids during high school. There, he fell in love with tumbling and diving activities at school and the YMCA. He found himself at The University of Iowa for swim meets, and he considered physical education or coaching as a career.
“I thought I may want to do something else besides coaching, and decided to get into business school since I liked math,” he says. “I also wanted to go to The University of Iowa in part to be on the gymnastics team.”
During his time as a Hawkeye starting in 1933, George proudly recalls receiving only one B and the rest A’s his freshman year. He also remembers the remarkable business professors, including Professor Conkwright and Dean Chester Phillips. Dean Phillips impressed George with his ability to remember students’ names. Phillips also lectured about the Depression.
As a member of the Iowa gymnastics and diving teams, George lived in Quadrangle Residence Hall and spent most of his time outside of class at the Field House pool and gym. He finished his college athletics career with an NCAA gymnastics championship and shared in the thrill of the Iowa gymnastics team winning the Big Ten championship.
When George graduated in 1937, he and his gymnastics friends were impatient to travel beyond the Big Ten’s borders.
“We realized that if we could travel and earn enough to get by, we could travel all year,” he says, so they formed the Three Leonardos acrobatic troupe and hit the road. Fairs, celebrations, trade shows, and other events hired them as entertainment, and they demonstrated the prototype of the trampoline everywhere they went.
George continued pursuing his goal to give gymnasts another practice outlet besides the gym. He experimented with rectangles of canvas, then nylon, and bound the surface to a strong metal frame with inner tubes or springs. The troupe’s time in Mexico inspired the name—in Spanish, el trampoline means springboard.
At high school assemblies, kids loved to jump on the trampoline and feel like they were flying. While George realized the recreational potential of the trampoline, he had yet to realize its financial potential. It took two years of promoting the trampoline across the country before he sold more than 10 units.
When World War II began, the physical education teachers and coaches he was targeting began enlisting in the Navy. He followed their lead, demonstrating the trampoline as another way to train men to control and orient themselves in the air and sea. Then, George enlisted in 1943. Following his service, he and a partner started Nissen Trampoline in Cedar Rapids. The company opened a branch in England in 1956, and George began traveling Europe and the world to market products.
As a result of his leadership in developing the equipment and the sport, the Nissen Cup trampoline competition was named after George. The event is still among the top three trampoline events in the world. Nissen Trampoline manufactured gymnastics equipment as well. Even after the company closed in the 1980s, George continued inventing fitness and recreational equipment. He holds approximately 45 patents.
One dream went unrealized for almost 65 years—George’s dream to have trampolining accepted as an Olympic sport. About 65 years after creating the first unit, trampolining was included in the 2000 and 2008 Olympics.
George lives in San Diego with his wife, Annie, near his daughter, Dian Nissen Ramirez (BA83), and her family. With the help of manufacturing partners, he continues to develop fitness-related products, including HealthBounce, a small, personal trampoline for exercise, and the Spaceball trampoline game.
George has plans to write a book about the habits and rules that he believes contribute to a long, productive life.
“When I get a little older, I’ll have some real credibility, so I’m not rushing to write the book,” he jokes. “My credibility increases all the time.”