Soldier, pioneer aviator, dry fly fisherman, prophetic dreamer and philosopher, JW Dunne was an extraordinary and fascinating character. He laid the foundations of many things that we today take for granted, not least the stable aeroplane and the hard science of parapsychology research. Famous from 1910 until the postwar era, his seminal work on precognitive dreams, An Experiment with Time, became a bestseller. Many of his achievements have been lost to history, yet their stories form an astonishing tapestry of interweaving threads which changed much of the world around us today. He befriended greats such as HG Wells, lived much of his life in a moated castle, sent a pamphlet to Hitler to try and prevent the Second World War, contemplated founding a new religion. His work on the stable aeroplane was perhaps the most enduring, and yet the least remembered, of his achievements.
Detailed, informed and revealing, his extraordinary tale is told here for the first time. This fascinating and highly readable account was made possible only by the Science Museum's recent acquisition of his vast professional archive. An extensive bibliography and index round it off for the serious historian.
Currently only available to order print-on-demand from Lulu.com. Over the next few weeks it will be made available to order worldwide, from outlets like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all good bookstores.
Until now, precious little was known about John William Dunne beyond his own writings and a few short essays. A remarkable chain of coincidences, which there is no room to recount here, started me off on this project and presently led, via a wildly unlikely encounter with the museum curator who had just cut the deal, to the Science Museum’s imminent and as yet unconfirmed acquisition of Dunne’s professional papers. I had to wait many months while the deal was concluded, the collection fumigated and the endless boxfuls made available. This book is the first substantial fruit of that acquisition.
The archive is a historical treasure trove. Dunne had kept almost everything. Such a wealth of startling revelations poured forth that I struggled to keep the book manageable. Despite those ten years of effort, much of the finer detail has had to fall by the wayside.
As the story unfolded, many of the apparently arbitrary twists and turns in one area of his life would be revealed as intimately related to goings-on elsewhere. For this reason the book takes a more or less chronological approach, bringing these interweavings to the fore rather than dealing with each aspect of his life in its otherwise inexplicable isolation.
It soon became painfully clear that the sparseness of the public record had caused a good many myths to grow up around Dunne over the years, in desperate attempts to fill in the gaps and find something – anything – to say. Revelation after revelation poured cold water on them, the truth proving far more dramatic and electrifying.
But when it came to illustrations, the museum proved hopeless. Among the archive are a dozens of historically significant, striking and unique images, from drawing sets of his aeroplanes to historic letters to photographs of him larking around with HG Wells. His story would need perhaps three or four dozen to do it justice. But the museum has, in its infinite wisdom, chosen a somewhat unhelpful approach to image licensing. For sufficient images, this struggling old-age-pensioner is expected to pay several thousands of pounds in advance, in image scanning and licensing fees. No recovery based on post-sales royalties, oh no. The profit has to be up front. They received a £15,000 grant towards buying the archive, on the explicit condition that they would make it available to the public. Here am I trying to do just that, but instead they prefer to set an insurmountable obstacle in the way. Sadly, this edition is not illustrated.
Guy Inchbald has taken almost ten years to research and write this biography of Dunne. Lifelong aero and science enthusiast, sometime student of philosophy, marginally better amateur mathematician, professional non-specialist and scion of that same dying socio-military upper middle class which once ran an Empire, I feel more qualified than most to understand the man and his work and to tackle head-on the broad, eclectic intellectual challenge of getting under his skin, the better to tell his tale.
Updated 23 January 2024