Modern gymnastics began with the work of Johann Friedrich GutsMuths (1759-1839), who taught at the Schnepfenthal Educational Institute near Gotha, Germany. GutsMuths developed a complete program of exercises designed to improve balance and suppleness as well as muscular strength. His book, Gymnastics for the Young, published in 1793 and soon translated into Danish, English, French, and Dutch, became a manual for a generation of physical education teachers in several countries.
One of GutsMuths' readers was Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852), a gymnastics teacher who was also a Prussian patriot and nationalist. Jahn believed, or convinced himself, that turnen was an old Teutonic word that meant doing gymnastics, and he adopted it in place of the Greek- and Latin-derived Gymnastik.
Using that as a root, Jahn coined several words: A gymnast was a Turner, a gymnastics organization a Turnverein, a gymnasium a Turnplatz, and a gymnastics festival a Turnfest. (Later his students coined another word; they referred to Jahn as the Turnvater, or father of gymnastics.)
Jahn was busy in 1811. He set up the first Turnplatz, south of Berlin, founded the first Turnverein, and organized the first Turnfest on June 19. The festival was a major success, and other Turnverein were soon established throughout Germany.
Jahn developed three types of apparatus that are still used in gymnastics: the high bar, parallel bars, and rings. He also created the forerunner of the balance beam, in form of a long pine log suspended on supports. But his influence went far beyond mere apparatus and teaching techniques.
The Turner movement was involved in politics as much as in gymnastics. When the wars of liberation from Napeolonic France began in 1813, Jahn led a group of his gymnasts in joining the Lutzow Free Corps and Jahn himself became a battalion commander. The wars ended successfully in 1815. With Prussia free from French rule, the Turners began working for a unified German state. In 1819, Jahn was arrested on suspicion of treason; the following year, gymnastics was banned in Prussia and more than a hundred gymnastics fields were shut down.
Jahn was released after two years in prison but was placed under house arrest until 1825. Then he was freed, but on the condition that he live in a town that had no university or gymnasium. His teaching career was over, but his influence lived on.
With gymnastics banned, the Turners became an underground society. They were active in the German revolution of 1848-49. When the revolution failed to produce the social changes they hoped for, many Germans emigrated to the United States. The movement reached a peak in 1852, when 252,000 Germans entered the country. Many, perhaps most, of them were Turners, and they were to have a major role in the development of American gymnastics.
Another of GutsMuths' disciples was Franz Nachtegall, who founded a private gymnasium in Copenagen in 1799. The Crown Prince of Denmark, who was serving as regent, felt that gymnastics would be useful for military training. He created the Military Gymnastic Institute in 1804 and appointed Nachtegall its director.
Per Henrik Ling of Sweden (1766-1839) studied at Nachtegall's gymnasium for five years and brought the ideas he learned back to his native country. Ling, like Jahn, was a nationalist who saw gymnastics as a way of strengthening Sweden's youth and soldiers. When the country's Royal Gymnastics Central Institute was founded in 1814, primarily for military training, Ling became its director.
Jahn's system of exercise and use of apparatus had focused mainly on developing muscular strength. Ling, who was also a fencing master, was more interested in the harmonious development of the body. He focused on movements leading to esthetically pleasing body positions. Where Jahn's gymnasts often did exercises while holding dumbbells, Ling emphasized free exercises.
Because he worked primarily with the military at the royal institute, Ling's classes were highly regimented. Students followed the leader in a series of movements that had to be performed in sequence and in unison, ending in the specified body position. That position then had to be held while the teacher checked each student individually to correct any faults in precise location of the limbs and trunk.
However, Ling's followers placed more emphasis on self-expression through an individual's movement, bringing gymnastics somewhat closer to dance. Among those followers were his son, Hjalmar Ling, who served as director of the educational department of the royal institute during the 1840s.