While it’s true that the trampoline is a fairly simple structure, it’s gone through a surprising amount of changes since its invention. Just about every piece of a modern trampoline has evolved as time has gone by, in some very surprising ways you may not be aware of.
The trampoline that we recognize today was invented in the 20th century, but there is evidence that different cultures have been using a similar concept for perhaps thousands of years. In Egypt, China, and Iran, researchers have found pictures of objects that look like trampolines with people “soaring” above them. There’s no way to know for what they may have been used, but the way they are depicted would indicate that they were valuable objects.
The Inuit certainly had a more practical use for them. They would stretch out walrus skin and stand in a circle. Then one of them, presumably the lightest, would get on the skin. The rest would then pull it taut to shoot him or her into the air. This was a way to see far distances to know if there are animals to hunt. Necessity is the mother of invention, and without binoculars, they came up with an ingenious solution. They also used the concept during certain celebrations to honour this technique. During their whaling festival, there are demonstrations and showcases as part of the party.
During medieval times, it would not have been uncommon to see a court jester jumping on a piece of wood suspended in the air. While it didn’t use fabric, this still followed the concept of stretching and un-stretching to get higher in the air.
In the late 1800s, firefighters started using safety nets to rescue people from burning buildings. These nets very much resembled trampolines, as they would catch people who jumped and bounced them up, only to catch them again. This concept carried through to acrobatic performers, who needed something to breaks falls when they made mistakes. There is a myth that a circus performer named Trampolin was the first to start using the safety nets in his performance by propelling himself upwards to do more tricks. He then allegedly moved on to having a separate performance just using the nets. There is no documentation of this, however, so no one can be certain if it’s true.
It was because of the circus that the modern trampoline was invented. George Nissen and Larry Griswold were gymnasts from the University of Iowa. After seeing a circus performance they noticed the trapeze safety nets and came up with the idea to use the concept to train for tumbling. They attached canvas to springs, and constructed a metal frame to hold it. Then they practiced their moves on it to give them a forgiving surface. They called it a trampoline after the Spanish word “trampolin,” which means diving board.
They started doing shows in the area, and one day went to a YMCA camp in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After the show, the kids asked to try out, and of course, they loved it. It was then that they realized that their invention could have a wider commercial purpose. The pair manufactured their invention in smaller sizes for shipping and home use. Those trampolines were basic metal structures with springs and canvas, and not much else.
Those trampolines are quite similar to those we use today, although the materials and designs have become more sophisticated. Over the years nets have been added to keep children from bouncing off the sides, and pads on the springs keeps fingers and toes from getting caught.
Trampolines are also used in many different ways. Astronauts use them for flight training and there are small trampolines used for rehabilitation and exercise. An entire industry of trampoline parks have become vogue in certain parts of the world as well. As its popularity grew, the trampoline has become recognized as an Olympic sport, with the first medals for it handed out at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.
Going forward, there’s no telling what uses people will have for trampolines, and what innovations will make them better. There are trampolines now that connect to tablets to keep track of bounce heights; calories burned, trajectories, and pretty much anything else you might want to know when using the trampoline. The trampoline apps also have games and activities, such as a game where you try to land on an alien on the canvas, and if you land in the right spot your tablet will give you a score. The goal is to combine the outdoor fun of trampolines with the sedentary fun of electronics.
The trampoline has come a long way. Who knows what trampolines will look like in the future as they get better and better.