Myths and Muddles

Twenty-one Things You Thought You Knew about J W Dunne

Few historical characters can have had so many mistakes and fairytales concocted around them as the father of the tailless aeroplane and of An Experiment with Time. Here are twenty of the more popular ones. If you thought you knew anything about J W Dunne, I'll bet you believed at least one of the following "facts":

He was an Irishman.
No, although born in the homeland of his father, the family were transients in a British Army camp. He was British, being half English and with a dash of Scot diluting the Irish blood even more. He was not above passing the odd joke upon the fact.
He was born or brought up in South Africa.
No, he was born in Ireland and brought up in England. He was first sent out to South Africa as a teenager after he had left school, and went back twice to fight in the Boer War.
He had just one brother, Frank, and one sister.
No, he had a second brother, Leonard.
He was commonly nicknamed "John Willy".
No, one friend did give him the nickname but it was not really used elsewhere. He was habitually called "Ian", a Scottish form of "John", in order to distinguish him from his father John Hart Dunne. The habit stuck in adult life, as both men became soldiers in the same regiment.
He met his future partner/s Capper and/or Tullibardine while serving in the Boer War.
No, while they all served as soldiers in South Africa at the same time, he did not meet either of them until afterwards.
He rose to the rank of Captain or Major.
No, his highest permanent rank was Lieutenant. He was promoted to temporary Captain for a short stint as a rifle instructor in WWI, but reverted back to Lieutenant afterwards. Another J W Dunne was contemporary with him and did eventually rise through Captain to the rank of Major – cue much confusion. Even some of his closest associates habitually got it wrong.
He was a mathematician and/or an engineer.
No, his father never let him study maths at school and he never studied engineering at all.
His first stable aeroplane, discovered in 1904, was his trademark tailless swept "arrowhead".
No, it was a rotor aeroplane. He went on to discover the "Rogallo" type delta wing later that same year. He did not discover the swept arrowhead, which had essentially the same aerodynamics as the delta, until 1905.
His trademark arrowhead aircraft was inspired by the zanonia seed.
No, he briefly studied the seed before rejecting its flying qualities. He drew his main inspiration from seagulls.
His trademark arrowhead aircraft was a flying wing.
No, the pilot, engine and other things were mounted on a framework or fuselage outside the wing; it was technically a "tailless aircraft".
He took a monoplane to Blair Atholl.
No, the myth arose from a muddled recollection by his assistant and then got pounced on by some historians. The primary evidence points firmly the other way. The D.1, D.3 and D.4 were all biplanes, while the D.2 was a triplane which was never built.
He was too ham-fisted to be able to reassemble his aeroplanes at Blair Atholl.
No, this was a man who made precise aerodynamic models and tied unusually fiddly dry flies with neat precision. The Army had given him old, bent and broken tools, he was untrained in their use, moreover he was suffering from a fever to the point of incoherence and was dosing himself up on quinine to keep going.
His D.9 is also known as the James Monoplane.
No, this is another muddle created by careless historians; the so-called James or Leonie Monoplane, more correctly called the Levis-Belmont monoplane, was built by an unrelated company. Its design came under Dunne's patents but he played no part in it whatsoever.
In aeronautical terms, he was a failure.
No, his achievements were so significant that he was honoured with the very first Certificate of Fellowship of the (now Royal) Aeronautical Society of Great Britain ever to be awarded.
After 1913 he never went back to aeroplane work.
No, he joined Armstrong Whitworth for much of 1914. He went back briefly in 1923 to help G T R Hill get started on his first Pterodactyl, and later more seriously during World War II.
His dry flies were all but useless.
No, properly cast in bright sunlight they could be devastatingly effective. Despite being easily damaged by a single fish, they could still work well even when they had almost disintegrated. It is true that they were often ineffective when the sun went in, but of course Dunne never pretended otherwise: he even called his accompanying book "Sunshine and the Dry Fly".
His theory of time and consciousness was pseudo-scientific nonsense.
No, several important scientists and rationalist philosophers, including H G Wells and leading astronomer and relativist Lord Rayleigh, held his rationalist approach in high regard even if they did not accept all of his ultimate conclusions. Moreover his theory of dreams was the first rational scientific theory to counter the sexual mumbo-jumbo of Freud, and as such it was an important contribution to the field. Many psychologists still accept his basic ideas.
He made the mistake of treating time as a fourth dimension of space.
No, he expressly disagreed with Hinton about that. He followed Einstein in treating time as a fourth "dimension" but with its own distinct mathematical character and not equivalent to space.
His dreams enabled him to predict the future.
No, he could only identify the prophetic aspect of a dream after the events it foretold had occurred: in his theory, a dream mixes past and future "memories" roughly equally into the general weirdness of the dream state, and the dreamer cannot normally tell invention from prevision.
J.B. Priestley based his "time plays" We Have Been Here Before and/or An Inspector Calls on Dunne's theory.
No, the former drew on the theories of Ouspensky and the latter on a synthesis of several ideas. Time and the Conways is the only one Priestley directly attributed to Dunne.
After he married into the aristocracy, they lived in luxury for the rest of their days.
No, Dunne's family relied heavily on his earned income and he was often short of cash.

Updated 9 Oct 2019