Time Machine: George Nissen, trampoline inventor
Entrepreneur built new gym equipment in Cedar Rapids
George Nissen was a Big Ten gymnastics star and captain of the gym team at the University of Iowa in the late 1930s. He also served as acrobatic instructor for Edna K. Dieman’s dance studio in Cedar Rapids.
Part of his job was to perform with the children. At a “Circus Revue” in Memorial Coliseum, Nissen and his fellow gymnasts, Xavier Leonard and Larry Griswold, performed as tumbling clowns.
A Gazette review said, “Nissen and Leonard also had an outstanding hand balancing act that would go over well on any vaudeville or circus booking.”
In 1937, when swim coach Dave Armbruster lost two of his first-string divers for the rest of the season, he talked Nissen into becoming a diver. He took second place in the Michigan-at-Iowa meet.
By the time he graduated in 1937, Nissen was a three-time national intercollegiate tumbling champ, an all-American diver, captain of the Iowa gym team and the inventor of a gymnastic playground device he called a trampoline.
Following graduation, Nissen became an instructor of tumbling, trampoline and apparatus at the YMCA and a promoter of his new product. In 1943, he registered the word “trampoline” as a trademark for his fledgling company.
When the Navy called him to duty in World War II, he went.
starting a business
When Nissen returned home in March 1946, he began to actively promote his invention through the Nissen trampoline Co. Officers of the company were Nissen as president, brother Paul as general manager, Matt Kimm as shop foreman and Fred Henson, public relations director.
Nissen bought a property with a 38-by-60-foot brick tile and steel building at 1324 Ellis Blvd. NW where the canvas and springs were made for the trampolines. A new, 50-by-60 cement block-and-steel building went up at 200 A Ave. NW to manufacture frames and assemble the trampolines.
Nissen soon added other sporting goods to his product line.
In 1959, the company had grown rapidly, and Nissen wanted a permanent home under a single roof.
He bought 11 acres on 27th Avenue SW, an area that was being promoted as an industrial park. His property was the closest to Sixth Street.
Foundations for the 67,000-square-foot gymnasium, showroom and manufacturing plant were poured on Nov. 2, 1959. The Nissen trampoline Co. was in its new home by January 1961.
In a public stock offering in 1960, Nissen retained 70 percent ownership of the company.
In the manufacturing end of the plant, the equipment was chrome-plated in large dipping tanks. “Gleaming chrome gym equipment has replaced painted models in the 1961 line,” a Gazette story reported.
A sewing room assembled a new line of tumbling mats. The mats, available in a variety of colors, were made in zip-apart sections with a spongy plastic center covered in durable plastic. The ability to separate the sections made them easier to move than the old mattress-type mats. An indoor loading dock that accommodated two trailer trucks at a time was another feature.
One end of the building’s gymnasium/showroom was a glass wall, enabling anyone outside to watch as gymnasts worked out.
Nissen’s office was on an upper level, with a wide-open view of the showroom.
Nissen explained to a Gazette reporter the sport was officially called rebound tumbling. “Trampoline Brand,” he explained, was the company trademark.
In that first month of operation, the new building was the workout site for a Russian gymnastics team in between shows at Coe College and the Fieldhouse in Iowa City.
Soon after, Nissen was defending his trademark in court. Nissen Trampline sought an injunction to prevent the American trampoline Co. from using the word. A federal judge ruled on April 5, 1961, that the word was in the public domain and not a trademark. Nissen appealed the ruling.
By 1964, the Nissen company was sponsoring more than 200 teacher clinics and organizing more than 1,300 high school assembly programs per year. The company made $3.1 million that year promoting gymnastics and selling its trampolines and 200 other items. Schools, YMCAs and YWCAs accounted for 92 percent of sales.
In 1972, Victor Comptometer acquired the company, retaining Nissen as executive officer as well as the Nissen name. Victor became part of Walter Kidde Co. in 1977.
atop a pyramid
Always a showman, Nissen decided to travel to Egypt in April 1977 with his international sales manager, Ronnie Munn, and bounce on a trampoline atop the largest pyramid.
“We didn’t really do it as a promotional stunt,” Munn said. “It was just one of those crazy, wonderful things George Nissen wanted to do. On our first trip, in April, we took along some trampolinists and gymnasts for several exhibitions in Egypt. We did a show at halftime of a big soccer game in the huge Cairo stadium that seats 110,000. The soccer game ended 0-0, and next day the papers said the halftime show was the best part of the game.”
They had to settle for bouncing on mini-tramps, though, because strong winds prevented a helicopter delivery of the full-size trampoline to the pyramid.
In May, they tried again, carrying the trampoline 450 feet up the pyramid. This time there was no professional photographer, but when they reached the top, they found two French Canadians who had spent the night. One was a photographer who shot photos of the men doing flips with pyramids in the background.
In 1978, Nissen Corp. acquired Universal Gym Equipment of Irvine, Calif. The Nissen-Universal company began phasing out the Nissen lines because of product liability lawsuits related to the trampoline. Nissen Corp. ceased to exist at the end of 1989. In 1994, Universal Gym Equipment Co. ended production of gym equipment in Cedar Rapids.
“It’s a sign of the times,” Nissen told The Gazette. “You can’t manufacture things in the United States the old way. Everything is outsourced by many manufacturers and retailers.”
Nissen dreamed of seeing trampolining become an Olympic sport and toured the world promoting it. That dream came true in 2000 when the sport was added to the Sydney Olympic Games.
Nissen died in 2010 at age 96.