J W Dunne: The Forgotten Genius

Updated 20 Feb 2024

Aeronaut, prophetic dreamer and fly fisherman, the legacy of J W Dunne helped shape our culture and touches all our lives. He was an extraordinary individual, most well known as an aviation pioneer and author of a book on prophetic dreams, An Experiment with Time. Older fly-fishermen will also know of his dry flies.

His ideas never quite achieved the recognition they deserved: his aeroplane company foundered, his philosophy went out of fashion, his dry flies unravelled. Ask anybody in the street today and they will almost certainly not have heard of him. At best he has a modest cult status. Nevertheless he deeply influenced each of these fields and his legacy is all around us today, from the so-called Rogallo-wing hang glider to the science of parapsychology research to the angler's choice of a translucent dry fly on a sunny day. His work is referenced in this the twenty-first century as often as it has ever been.


Early life

Although he was born in Ireland, the homeland of his part-Scottish father, John William Dunne had more English blood in him than Irish, along with that dose of the Scot for good measure. His older sister Marion was born in Scotland and his younger brothers Leonard and Frank in England. Their father, General Sir John Hart Dunne, was a career soldier and until they settled down in England the family followed him around from one posting to another. The young John (known familiarly as "Ian" to distinguish him from his father) was born in the Army camp of the moment, which just happened to be in Ireland. He always regarded himself first and foremost as British.

As he grew up, the boy began to have ecstatic visions. They would continue throughout his life. Some turned out to be prophetic, perhaps even accompanied by voices urging him on. It was these dreams, shorn of the clamouring voices, which form the first part of his best-known book.

But before he had accumulated enough dreams to make sense of them he joined up to fight in the Boer War, first as a common mounted Trooper in the volunteer Imperial Yeomanry because there were no more openings for officers of his own social class. He just had time to notice the difficulties the Army were having with their newfangled observation balloons, before being struck down by an epidemic of enteric fever that was decimating the British ranks. Invalided home and inspired by Jules Verne, he dreamed of a flying machine to replace those awkward balloons. Egged on by HG Wells, he had not got very far when another round of war and fever interrupted him. This time he became a regular soldier, joining as a sub-Lieutenant with the Wiltshire Regiment and lasting a little longer before malarial fever once more sent him packing. Along the way, he joined in a political campaign, waged at a senior military level, to regularise the ad hoc but highly effective mounted rifles that the Yeomanry and his own fighting forces had evolved into. But a sea change was gathering momentum in the War Office, from old-fashioned cavalry to modern artillery. The mounted riflemen were fast becoming an anachronism and were disbanded before the next war would be fought.


Dunne's flying boots, 2016 (Private collection)

Back home again he discovered how to make a machine stable in the air, safe enough for any untrained soldier to fly. Over a span of twelve months he rediscovered the stable flying machine at least four more times, each a little more practical than the last. His claims that you find in the history books refer not to the last of these, his trademark arrowhead tailless aeroplane, but to a class of rotor aeroplane with horizontal-axis wing rotors. If you have an illustrated copy of HG Wells' The War in the Air you can see the general kind of thing, based loosely on materials Dunne had sent to Wells, fluttering round Nelson's column. Next came a triple-tandem "triplane" with the middle wing raised higher than the fore and aft wings. A model of this, hung from a cable on a spinning fairground ride, was clocked at over a hundred miles an hour, with Dunne clinging to it like a monkey, for it was not meant to be manned. He thus reckoned himself the first man in history to beat the 100 mph barrier. A full-size "Dunne-Huntington" machine would later be built and flown.

Changing direction once more, he briefly studied the gliding "Zanonia" seed, as it was then called, and discarded it in disgust. His next stable design was a triangular wing with a characteristic conically-curved upper surface. Discovered in 1904, a model sent to Lord Rayleigh in 1905, patented in 1909 and confirmed by Rayleigh in 1910, Dunne waited too long to patent it in America and was beaten there by a pair of home-grown rediscoverers. A kite in this form was patented in America shortly after the Second World War and then in the late 1950s it was rediscovered yet again and popularised by Francis Rogallo, an American space scientist and kite-flying enthusiast whose own patents were for a foldaway kite with no rigid parts and a different, cylindrical curvature. Despite having poles to support the fabric wings as they billow upward into Dunne's perfect cone and therefore not being covered by the Rogallo patents, they are universally known as Rogallo wings. You have probably seen this kind of wing on at least one hang glider or ultralight aeroplane. Next time you do, remember that they are really Dunne wings.

But his delta wing was not very efficient. Dunne wanted better. He developed an efficient stable wing based on that of a seagull. But it was too subtly curved to be practical, so he sought to distil out its essence in simpler form. In this way he arrived at his "arrowhead" design, a classic tailless, swept wing with a conically formed upper surface, tip "washout" and many other subtle stability features. Because the cone was common to both his swept and delta forms, and imbued the same stability characteristics to both, he always regarded his delta as the first of the line.

It was the more efficient swept form which he built at Farnborough for the Army and took to Blair Atholl in Scotland for testing, all under the greatest secrecy. These craft were all biplanes, although some muddled reports have created a mythical monoplane to accompany them. A metal propeller blade from his last Blair Atholl machine, the D.4, survives in the stores of the Science Museum.

With Farnborough temporarily banned from working on aeroplanes by the blunt instrument of national politics, Dunne moved to the Aero Club's new flying ground on the Isle of Sheppey. There he and his Blair Atholl Aeroplane Syndicate Ltd. built and flew a series of stable arrowhead machines both biplane and monoplane, obtaining in the process the first ever certificate for a stable aeroplane and shocking Orville Wright with the controllability of the design. For Orville believed that a machine could not be both stable and controllable, and together with Wilbur had deliberately built his aeroplanes back to front, unstable and very difficult to fly. After Orville returned home, the brothers' next machine had more effective ailerons, as used by Dunne (among others), in place of their patent wing-warping. However they never accepted that getting rid of the tail altogether was a good idea.

During this time, Dunne rose to high position in both the Aeronautical Society and the Aero Club. He became increasingly sought after for advice on matters both aeronautical and political. When a potentially disastrous stand-off between a desperate aero industry and a cautious War Office threatened to sour relations, it was Dunne, the only manufacturer who also had a leg in the military camp, who saw the danger and defused it. He had been appointed to an Industry delegation to Parliament, which was intended to harangue the Minister concerned. Realising the dangers of such a confrontational approach at the last minute in the evening before, he tore up his speech and rewrote it. Giving the opening address on the following day, he used the opportunity to deftly turn aside the impending disaster. For this act alone, the British aero industry owes a huge debt to Dunne. Without his intervention there might well have been no Sopwith Camel in the coming war, no Bristol Fighter, no Handley Page bomber, just whatever the state-owned Farnborough and the French could turn out. Nor was his contribution solely political. The highest professional aeronautical recognition in the UK is Fellowship of the Aeronautical Society (nowadays Royal). The very first Fellowship certificate bears Dunne's name. This attests that he was one of the real heavyweight contributors of his day to "the science and practice of aviation", make no mistake about that.

His eighth arrowhead design, the D.9 (the D.2 had been a test glider for that odd triple-tandem), has been the subject of outright fairy-tales. Richard Fairey's stress diagrams for it show a biplane with the lower wing shorter than the upper, sometimes called a sesquiplane. It was abandoned, leaving a huge great question mark scrawled across Fairey's last, unfinished drawing. Read the wrong history books and you may be tempted to believe that it was called the "James monoplane", was built in Birmingham by Levis Ltd, had a massive great driveshaft along its length, from an engine mounted upside down at the front to a rear-mounted propeller, and had big wheel spats with "Leonie" painted on them. Sorry, no. There was indeed a Levis-Belmont monoplane with front-mounted engine (still on display in the London Science Museum - look for the five-cylinder inline beastie), but it had a front-mounted propeller, the engine was the right way up, and "Leonie" was painted on its rudder. Both machines had swept wings, were subject to Dunne's patents and neither flew, but there the resemblances end. Let this stand as a cautionary tale to all budding historians - check your primary sources before believing your predecessor's fantasies, and don't embroider them with your own either!

Had war not intervened, his aeroplanes would have found a new home. In America Starling Burgess put them into production. In France, Nieuport planned the same and built a prototype. Back home, in 1914 the great engineering company Armstrong Whitworth decided to move into aeronautics and bought his struggling Syndicate's assets. Dunne's own updated design, the D.11, was once more in the offing when war came and swept all three efforts aside.

Illness and rifle instruction, among other things, kept Dunne away from his aeroplanes until the 1920s, when a new association briefly revived his interest. In 1923 GTR Hill sought his advice on tailless aircraft before beginning work on what became a series of Westland-Hill Pterodactyls. Dunne drew up a new monoplane for Hill and continued to keep in touch with his progress, meeting up with at least one of the test pilots and even dreaming about one of the later machines.

The next war saw Dunne back at his aeroplanes again, updating his ideas for the impending jet age. Ready now to press ahead with a D.12, he was rejected and forgotten twice by overworked officials at the Ministry of Aircraft Production. So he turned to some of his old friends who were now leading industrial figures at the heads of their own companies - Richard Fairey, Geoffrey de Havilland, Handley Page. His publisher Geoffrey Faber turned out to be well connected too and put in a sharp word in high places: suddenly the Ministry was overflowing with apologies and lame excuses. Would Dunne like to make a six-foot test model tailored for the wind tunnels at the National Physics Laboratory? A retrospective on Dunne appeared in the pages of a national aviation magazine, followed by studies of the jet engine and future tailless aircraft with and without jets. Sadly, his deteriorating health was now so crippling that his wind tunnel model, as neat a little streamlined delight as anyone could wish for, was left unfinished on his drawing-board and he turned to other things. But all would not be lost. At about this time a Tailless Aircraft Advisory Committee sprang up out of the woodwork, stuffed with Dunne's old colleagues and advocates who outnumbered his long-term nemesis, RAE Farnborough. As late as 1946 Dunne and de Havilland were still talking over the finer points of the tailless jet. The DH.108 Swallow bore a certain resemblance to the abortive model and de Havilland used to tease his younger staff that Dunne had got it right decades ago so they better had too. It became the first British aircraft to exceed the speed of sound, albeit in an uncontrolled dive. Its one weak point was due solely to the attainment of speeds beyond anything yet experienced and was shared by most experimental aircraft of that first transonic generation, tail or no. The data gained from this little Dunne-like machine laid the foundations of British swept-wing technology from that moment on.

From humble hang-gliders to supersonic jets, today Dunne's stable, tailless inheritance is everywhere around us.

Fly fishing

The trout at Broughton Castle, 2016. (Author)
The light switch on the left gives it scale.

A keen angler, Dunne was struck by the dead appearance of the traditional artificial flies used as lures. He realised that real flies are often translucent and, especially when seen from underneath in bright sunlight, look quite different. He studied the visual experience of the fish looking upwards and published three short essays in The Field. From this research he developed a range of dry fly designs and a book to go with them, Sunshine and the Dry Fly. He persuaded a manufacturer of artificial silks to create a line of precisely-coloured threads and for several decades the keen angler could buy his flies or, if so inclined, the materials to make them up, from leading suppliers such as Hardy's and Farlow's. You could even buy the delightfully named "Sunshine oil" to brighten them up and make them float.

But the flies proved fiddly to make and not very sturdy, and other more practical designs from Skues and others soon superseded them. Nevertheless his writings on fly fishing remain some of the most lyrical and at the same time technically observant to be found. His essay for beginners, The Fly on the Water, remains a classic text.

A private room in Broughton Castle, where he lived while his children were growing up, sports a glass case containing a truly monstrous trout (for a trout) which he once caught with one of his flies in Sor Brook, the stream which feeds its moat.

Dreams, Time and Serialism

Dunne's dreams of the future are perhaps his most well-known legacy. Deeply affected by their mixture of commanding voices and glimpses into his own future, he struggled to rationalise what was happening to him. At the age of nine he was already chewing over the nature of Time - was its foundation the waypoints of yesterday, today and tomorrow, or was it the travelling between them, the moment of "now" in which we feel eternally trapped? He began to document his dreams with scientific thoroughness, keeping a notebook and pencil under his pillow so that he could write them down before they were forgotten. Then he analysed them with the same scientific objectivity, developing rigorous methods that even today can stand as a classic example of how to do parapsychology (though few workers would admit it since Rhine stamped his mark on the field). He concluded that somehow the dreaming mind could access the future much as it accessed the past and it jumbled everything up together. Some of his close friends tried it too and found much the same.

The next step was to roll in his developing ideas about Time. Einstein had turned the waypoints of Time into a dimension, mapping out the Universe in a four-dimensional "spacetime". Dunne did the same for the movement of "now" across this landscape, creating a new time dimension in which its pace could be measured. But that led to the same question over again, how to measure the pace of movement through this fifth dimension, and so on in an infinite regress, an endless series of time dimensions. The self experiencing the moment followed similarly in an endless series of higher and higher selves, all effectively immortal. The whole thing he dubbed Serialism and wrote up in his bestselling book, An Experiment with Time, elaborating on it in more books as the years went by.

Serialism soon became an immensely popular topic of discussion, touching as it did so many areas of thought, with greater or lesser success in different places.

Philosophers of Time and of Science discarded his infinite regress. Dunne was willing to do so too if they could produce a better explanation for the moment of now, but they could not do so then, any more than we can today. Rather than admit to ignorance, he clung to his regress as the best idea available, and in this he made too many enemies in the worlds of philosophy and science, ever to be accepted. The fact that he built upon it a metaphysical proof of the existence of God, at a time when materialism had become the fashion among leading philosophers, certainly did not help dispel the atmosphere of scepticism. Even his old friend, that ardent materialist HG Wells, turned against him. Dunne's infinite regress was in fact merely the first of many to invade the New Physics and they are today ten a penny. Had he come along after phase spaces, renormalisation, black holes and parallel universes, his own infinity might have been found more acceptable. Yet, the rejection having been lodged in the establishment's mind along with its religious association, it would not be undone.

Meanwhile psychologists delighted in the first rational theory of dreams to compete with Sigmund Freud's sexual mumbo-jumbo. It was as if a lid had been taken off and the field could at last progress once more. Inspired by Dunne's idea that fragments of one's future can appear in a disassociated mind and by his emphasis on rigorous method, workers such as Rhine went on to develop the field of experimental parapsychology. The problem of eliminating subjective bias from what is essentially a subjective evaluation of a dream record is immense. So too is the problem of deciding what effect you are actually testing for. Despite the enormous pains taken by Dunne and his successors to develop sophisticated and watertight methods, the best predictor of any experimental outcome remains whether or not the lead researcher's inclination is to acceptance or scepticism. And I have to say, having by now investigated a good few research examples, I have come to realise that the average sceptic is as bad at science as the average believer. Making any sense at all out of any of it is a nightmare. Frankly, science has not made the slightest progress since Dunne first published in 1927 and we remain as ignorant as ever.

The greatest impact of Serialism has been literary. For a decade until the outbreak of WWII it was the talk of the town, a sure icebreaker at many a society evening. HG Wells, TS Eliot, JB Priestley, John Buchan, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Graham Greene, Agatha Christie, Robert Heinlein, Phillipa Pearce and Vladimir Nabokov are among the greats who have drawn inspiration from Dunne, some even namechecking him in their tales. The most enduringly popular of these are probably Priestley's time play An Inspector Calls and Pearce's children's book, Tom's Midnight Garden (though you might also like to check out my essay, The Last Battle: J W Dunne in Narnia). Films too have borrowed from Dunne: Escape from the Planet of the Apes, third in the film franchise, features Dunne's drawing of an artist painting himself painting himself painting... in a Hollywood hocum explanation of time travel.

Serialism made a special impact too on Dunne's own life. An ardent rationalist, he was also by inclination an equally ardent Anglican Christian and agonised a great deal over the clash between reason and faith. As a teenager in South Africa he had encountered a spiritualist medium who proclaimed him the greatest prophet the world had ever seen. This mixed with his precognitive dream visions to further disturb him. Imagine his delight on discovering that his soberly rational Serialism furnished him with a path to the immortal Infinite - we all of us dwelt within the God of his heart's desire. His last dream vision seemed to tie up his own personal loose ends as best could be done, and he died believing that he had mathematically drawn Serialism and God into the scientific framework of Einstein's relativity.

Later life

Broughton Castle, 2016. (Author)

At the age of fifty-two, Dunne got married. The Honourable Cicely Marion Violet Joan Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes was daughter to the 18th Baron Saye and Sele (by the family's counting, others disagree). She was the first daughter of the house in many centuries to have been given away in the splendid and unusual church, with its twin naves, set next door to the castle. The wedding was a fine affair, with her father's regimental band sent over for the occasion. HG Wells, in typically modest style, gave them a signed limited-edition set of his own works to date. Photographs hang today in the visitors' tea house at Broughton Castle, the present Baron making an appearance as one of two suitably dubious-looking page boys, while Crystal, daughter of Dunne's old friend and one-handed aviator Capt. Carden, stands demurely as one of the pretty young bridesmaids.

Living for much of the time in the castle, the newly-weds soon produced first son Christopher and then daughter Rosemary. Their father distilled some of their bedtime stories into two more books and an unfinished manuscript for a third. As they grew older they would run up to the roof and indulge in daredevil exploits. The Dunnes wanted their own permanent family home and built a comfortable town house by the seaside near Bournemouth. But the Second World War made the South Coast an unsafe place for children and they never moved in.

As war loomed, like many others Dunne had fumed at the impotence of the League of Nations to curb Hitler's excesses. He circulated a booklet suggesting a way forward to peace through a new League of North-West Europe. He even sent a copy personally to Hitler, later claiming that it had been quoted in Nazi speeches. It raises the real possibility that Hitler may have thought him an unofficial conduit of government negotiations, leading to his well-known misreading British intentions and subsequent invasion of Poland. Recognising the cruel reality that Hitler could not be stopped from persecuting German Jewry, Dunne's booklet proposed that his newly-formed League should at least compensate them for their financial losses, allowing them to rebuild their lives elsewhere. With hindsight, it would certainly have been less disastrous for all concerned than the horrific holocaust and war which in fact followed our Government's inaction. Dunne later even suffered unjustified accusations of anti-Semitism, for his choice of one or two phrase had been unusually poor. He was certainly a man of his time, falling prey to many of the popular racial stereotypes of the day and capable of being tactless. But it should be emphasised that his chief concern with the German Jews was to rescue them, as best as could be done, from an otherwise unstoppable disaster. Any limitations to the rescue were recognitions of the hard reality of the situation and were in no way borne of malice.

After the war, the ailing Dunne moved with his family to a smaller home in nearby Bloxham. Then, after his death, Christopher emigrated to New Zealand where his own family still live. Cicely and Rosemary moved to another cottage where they lived out the rest of their lives, hoarding Dunne's personal archive and much other memorabilia. Sadly, much of the greatest financial value went missing after a break-in, including jewellery, General Dunne's militaria and Wells' set of books. Dunne's grandchild was livid at having to buy back great-grandfather's medals at auction. Fortunately, much of what remained looked unappetising and eventually found its way to the Science Museum's archives, where I discovered the remarkable truth about him.


If you want to know more about this extraordinary man and his equally extraordinary life, then check out The Man Who Dreamed Tomorrow: The Life of J W Dunne.