History of Trampolines
The Earliest Trampolines
Trampolines have come a long way since their origins. Going back centuries, the first attempts to help humans leap into the air were not always successful, but they still built the foundations for what we know of as “trampolines” today.
Before the advent of a mat suspended by springs, there were a number of different approaches to launching human beings into the air.
The first of these, the springboard, dates back to nearly the turn of the first millennium. These were produced by fixing a board to a solid base at one end and moving a fulcrum someplace between the fixed end and the free end. At one point actual spring mechanisms were added to the fulcrum.
The idea was that by fixing one end like that, the free end would bend over the fulcrum and become springy, allowing the person jumping on it to jump much higher into the air. This device was added to acrobatics and tumbling shows, making it possible to do a whole new round of tricks. Of course, it was also very dangerous to the people using it, particularly since it was usually used on the ground.
Springboards are still around today, but they generally go by the more common name “diving board” and launch people into pools rather than risking injury by having them try to do a series of flips then land on dirt.
Another type of proto-trampoline was called “The Leaps” and came into popularity during the Middle Ages. The Leaps was even simpler than the springboard, composed of just a thin board placed on two stands, one at each end. By jumping on the board, the springing rebound would provide several feet of additional lift, allowing performers to do tricks and add to their shows.
The biggest benefit of The Leaps was that it was cheap to put together and easy to transport. It didn’t take a whole lot to be able to assemble a Leaps rig, meaning that traveling performers could carry around the parts on their back if needs be, then put it together in seconds and do a show.
The other advantage is that it opened up a new aspect to the performance: landing. Suddenly it was easier to do shows that incorporated interesting landings as well as jumps. Much of what we think of as balance beam routines today found some of their earliest manifestations in Leaps shows, excepting that the modern balance beam doesn’t launch its occupant into the air.
Finally, perhaps the closest thing to modern trampolines was the trapeze net. While not technically used for assisted jumping, it generally served the same function by being a cushion for falling trapeze artists, slowly dissipating the energy of their fall by bouncing them into the air until they came to rest on the net.
While there is no evidence to support this, there is a legend in some circuses that a French trapeze artist named “du Trampoline” tried to improve the net. He added springs to the outside and attached them to a frame, figuring that the additional support would not only be helpful, but might provide enough lift that trapeze artists could add falling into their show and bounce right back up into the routine. Again, there’s no proof that his is true, but the legend carries a lot of weight in certain circles.
The First Modern Trampolines
The first trampolines that could be considered “modern,” which is to say in any way like the ones we know today, were invented by a man named George Nissen. He was a gymnast looking for a way to make gymnastics easier and more accessible to the general population.
For his first trampoline, invented in 1936, he took surplus canvas and attached it to a metal frame with a series of springs, tightening them until it was strong enough to hold and rebound a human.
After finishing the prototype, Nissen hoped that not only would trampolines become popular for gymnastics, but also for a new game that he had invented called “Spaceball.” This was a game that involved participants bouncing on a trampoline separated by a net with a hole in it. The objective was to throw a ball through the hole so that it landed on the ground on the other side. It combined aspects of basketball and volleyball and even involved upright trampolines set at an angle so players could bounce off their backs to catch the ball.
While Spaceball never took off as a sport, trampolines did. Today there are over 500,000 trampolines sold to the private market every year, and that number keeps rising. We certainly have come a long way from the spring board to here.