Soldier, pioneer aviator, dry fly fisherman, prophetic dreamer and philosopher. Living from 1875 to 1949 and famous from 1910 until the postwar era, nowadays few have heard of J W Dunne. Yet 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, and there is much else that he deserves to be remembered for.
The few published accounts of him are full of mistakes, delusions and outright fairy-tales, spun in desperation to fill the void in what little we have really known. Archives held in many places, especially his own personal papers acquired by the Science Museum in 2015, have a very different and far more electrifying tale to tell.
Four Forgotten Flies – New variations intended for the Second Edition of Sunshine and the Dry Fly, but never made it. – 10 Dec 2021.
Editions of An Experiment with Time – Which is the best edition to get? Here are my suggestions, now updated with the full list. – 5 Nov 2021.
The Serial Quantum – Some aspects of serialism are still relevant to modern physics. – 10 June 2021.
Serial Time and the Differential Calculus – Updated: Could schoolkid maths have got Dunne out of some of the corners he painted himself into, or at least have enabled more people to understand what he was getting at? – 9 Apr 2021.
What is Serialism? – The broader perspective on his philosophy of time and consciousness. – 28 Dec 2020.
UK Patent No. 8118 of 1909 (pdf) – Original patent on the stable tailless swept and delta wings. – Uploaded 26 Dec 2020.
The Theory of the Dunne Aeroplane (pdf) – Verbatim account of his lecture to the Aeronautical Society in 1913, as serialised in Flight, 16 Aug to 13 Sept 1913. – Uploaded 16 Dec 2020.
I have been researching and writing his biography for several years now. 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.
At the time of writing it stands at about 180,000 words and the first reasonably complete and readable draft is now ready for the hard part - finding a publisher or even an agent. If you have any queries - or better still original material - or best of all you are a literary agent or publisher - feel free to contact me.
Dunne's own books are listed on his Wikipedia page.
His business papers and related objects are now held at the Science Museum's Archive Centre, Wroughton, UK. They were bought in 2015 for £38,000, following a £15,000 grant from the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL). I estimate there must be at least 20,000 individual documents and objects, some of them whole books. The Museum has published a first (and still incomplete) summary of them.
For the early Farnborough Balloon Factory tale, the second volume of Percy Walker's monumental Early Aviation at Farnborough is unparalleled. Dunne's subsequent aircraft are fairly well chronicled in the pages of Flight. Among general histories, the least tainted accounts are probably Peter Lewis British Aircraft 1809-1914 and Harald Penrose British Aviation: The Pioneer Years 1903-1914, although Penrose is overly troubled by the monoplane fancies. Avoid modern accounts!
If you happen to be in the neighbourhood of Trenton, Canada, there is a full-size replica of a Burgess-Dunne seaplane at the National Air Force Museum.
I know of no readily accessible commentary on his fly-fishing works although many writers, from GEM Skues to Arthur Ransome and Jeremy Paxman, have acknowledged him. "The Fly on the Water" originally appeared in WA Hunter's anthology Fisherman's Pie. If you are extremely lucky, you may be able to find someone with a limited-edition copy of Griffiths, Overfield & Knott; Dry Flies in the Sunshine: J. W. Dunne and His Dry Fly Patterns from Creel Press.
Serialism is discussed with at least a semblance of reason by JB Priestley in Man and Time, by Brian Inglis in his introduction to the 1981 Papermac edition of An Experiment with Time and by Russell Targ in his preface to the 2001 Hampton Roads edition of the same work. Philosophers may pursue contemporary references to Broad, Cleugh, Gunn, Tyrrell and, not long after Dunne's death, the acerbic Flew. Less academically respectable but nonetheless intriguing takes have been offered in more recent times by Sean O'Donnell in The Paranormal Explained and Anthony Peake in The Labyrinth of Time.
On the literary side, Serialism's influence on Tolkien and to some extent on CS Lewis is explored by Verlyn Flieger in A Question of Time: JRR Tolkien's Road to Faërie. Academics may seek out Victoria Stewart's papers, "J. W. Dunne and Literary Culture in the 1930s and 1940s", Literature and History (2008) and "An Experiment with Narrative? Rumer Godden's A Fugue in Time" in Rumer Godden: International and Intermodern Storyteller (2010). Most recently, Gennady Barabtarlo has edited Vladimir Nabokov's Dunne-inspired notes to create an account of his Insomniac Dreams.
Works of popular fiction which reference Dunne are legion. From John Buchan's The Gap in the Curtain and HG Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, through JB Priestley's plays such as Time and the Conways, to the likes of James Blish's Jack of Eagles and A Bertram Chandler's Kelly Country, he has remained a popular inspiration.
Related Blocki posts
kitt price has created a blog at J.W. Dunne: dreaming the future, to which you are invited to contribute.
Francis Spufford's BBC Radio 3 broadcast, I Have Been here before, on JB Priestley and Dunne, is well worth a listen.
If you like podcasts, here are some which introduce various aspects of Serialism: