Myths and Muddles

Eleven 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. Most misunderstood are his aeroplanes, which get their own list of myths and muddles. Here are eleven popular ones about other aspects of his life. 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.
Despite being born in the homeland of his father, the latter was a career soldier, at the time of his son's birth being a transient doing a tour in a British Army camp which happened to be in Ireland. The son 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 Anglo-Irish.
The Anglo-Irish were residential aristocrats of English origin who had settled in Ireland. His father was a native Irishman who just happened to have married an English woman from East Anglia; both were recorded simply as British.
He was born or brought up in South Africa.
As noted, he was born in Ireland. He was brought up in England and first sent out to South Africa as a teenager after he had left school. He later went back twice to fight in the Boer War.
He had just one brother, Frank, and one sister.
He had a second brother, Leonard, who was the youngest of the three. Two older siblings died in infancy, before he was born.
He was commonly nicknamed "John Willy".
One friend did give him the nickname but it was not really used elsewhere, at least not until a travel writer unearthed it and popularised it in a book. His family habitually called him "Ian", a Scottish form of "John", in order to distinguish him from his father John Hart Dunne. The habit followed him in his Army life, as he joined his father's regiment and the need to distinguish the two Johns remained vital. By then, he was stuck with "Ian" for life.
His dry flies were all but useless.
Properly chosen and 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: the clue is in the title of his accompanying book, "Sunshine and the Dry Fly".
His theory of time and consciousness was pseudo-scientific nonsense.
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.
In fact, 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. However, it is true that he did not understand the mathematical niceties involved in Einstein's theory.
His dreams enabled him to predict the future.
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 prevision from invention or forgotten memory. The knowledge that it was precognition comes only with hindsight.
J.B. Priestley based his "time plays" We Have Been Here Before and/or An Inspector Calls on Dunne's theory.
For these plays Priestley drew on the theories of Ouspensky, dunne and others in a synthesis of their ideas. Time and the Conways is the only one Priestley directly attributed to Dunne's theory.
After he married into the aristocracy, they lived in luxury for the rest of their days.
Dunne's family relied heavily on his earned income and he was often short of cash. When he built himself a house on the back of his father-in-law's legacy, he had to sell it a few years later, before the family had even moved in, in order to make ends meet.

Updated 14 Dec 2021