John William Dunne

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John William Dunne
Dunne flyinhg machine.jpg
John William Dunne in his D.5 biplane at Eastchurch, 14 June 1910
Born 1875
Curragh Camp, County Kildare, Ireland
Died 24 August 1949
Banbury, England
Occupation Soldier
Spouse(s) Cicely Marion Violet Joan Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes
Children John Geoffrey Christopher Dunne
Rosemary Elizabeth Cecily Dunne
Parent(s) General Sir John Hart Dunne
Julia Elizabeth Dunne

John William Dunne FRAeS (1875–1949) was a British soldier, aeronautical engineer and philosopher. As a young man he fought in the Second Boer War, before becoming a pioneering aeroplane designer in the early years of the 20th century. Dunne worked initially on early military aircraft, concentrating on tailless swept wing designs to achieve the first certified inherently stable aircraft. He later developed a new approach to dry fly fishing before turning to philosophy, where he achieved some pre-eminence and literary influence through his theory on the nature of time and consciousness, which he called "Serialism".


John William Dunne was born in County Kildare, Ireland,[1] the oldest son of General Sir John Hart Dunne KCB (1835–1924) and Julia Elizabeth Dunne, Anglo-Irish aristocrats. His later life and career was mainly in England.

From an early age he was interested in science and technology and, inspired by a Jules Verne novel, at the age of 13 he dreamed of a flying machine that needed no steering.

Military career[edit]

Dunne joined the Imperial Yeomanry as an ordinary Trooper and fought in the Second Boer War in South Africa, under General Roberts but in 1900 was invalided home with typhoid.

Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Wiltshire Regiment on 28 August 1901, he went back to South Africa to serve a second tour in March 1902.[2][3] Dunne was diagnosed with heart disease, causing him to again return home the next year. His remaining career in the Army would be spent on aeronautical work.


While on medical leave in 1901, Dunne began to study the science of aerodynamics and flight earnestly, first observing birds in flight. Encouraged among others by H.G. Wells, whom he befriended in 1902, he designed and built a number of small test models based on a tailless configuration.[4]

On his return to England for the second time he resumed his study of flight, despite poor health, and by 1904 was ready to proceed to the construction of gliders and, eventually, powered aircraft to embody his theories of flight control and stability.

At the request of Colonel John Capper, the unit's commanding officer, he was assigned to the new Army Balloon Factory in South Farnborough in June 1906 and would remain there until 1909. After months of building and testing further models, all featuring his distinctive tailless "arrowhead" shape, Dunne built a manned glider, the D.1, with provision for fitting engines and propellers.

The D.1 was constructed under great secrecy and, in July 1907, was shipped by rail to the village of Blair Atholl in the Scottish Highlands for flight testing. The D.1 made several short glides during secret trials conducted in the hills north of the village. On the last flight, Capper flew for eight seconds before crashing into a wall and slightly injuring himself. The experimental glider had at least demonstrated the stability Dunne considered so essential. The D.1 was repaired and fitted with twin engines driving a single shaft which in turn drove twin propellers. It crashed on its first attempted flight when the takeoff trolley veered off course.

The D.2 glider, designed in 1907, was a proposed small-scale test vehicle for the larger Dunne-Huntington powered aircraft, designed by Dunne in 1907–1908 for construction by Huntington. The glider was not built but the full-scale craft would eventually be built by Huntington and flown successfully in 1910-11. It has been variously described as a biplane or triplane owing to its odd configuration of a heavily-staggered biplane wing with a large foreplane close in front.

The D.3 man-carrying glider and the D.4 powered aeroplane were in their turn taken to Blair Atholl in 1908, where the glider eventually flew well and the D.4 had limited success being, in Dunne's words, "more a hopper than a flyer".[5] During this trip Dunne was again dogged by ill health.

Dunne returned to the Balloon factory and began working on his next design, the D.5. However, in 1909 the War Office stopped any official support for heavier-than-air flight, and Dunne left the Balloon Factory. He was allowed to keep his aeroplanes. By now, Dunne was also an official in the Aeronautical Society.

With his friends' financial investment Dunne formed a small company, the Blair Atholl Aeroplane Syndicate, to continue his experiments. Like previous models, the D.5 was a tailless V-shaped biplane, with sharply swept back wings. A central nacelle housed the pilot (and passenger) along with a rear-mounted engine that drove two pusher propellers. The swept wings provided inherent stability incorporating wash-out by rolling the leading edge down progressively from root to tip. Short Brothers on the Isle of Sheppey were contracted to build the craft and it is sometimes known as the Short-Dunne 5. By 1910 the aircraft was completed.

On 20 December 1910, on the Aeronautical Society's flying ground at Eastchurch, Sheppey, Dunne demonstrated the extraordinary stability of the D.5 to an amazed audience that included Orville Wright and Griffith Brewer. Flying using only the throttle to climb or dive, he could also take both hands off the controls so as to make notes on a piece of paper.[6] Then in 1911 the D.5 crashed and was badly damaged.

Dunne had originally wanted to construct a monoplane, but at the time the Army expected biplanes and Capper had instructed Dunne accordingly. Dunne's next design, free of Army influence, was a monoplane, the D.6. This and its derivatives, the D.7 and D.7bis, flew throughout 1911-1912.

By now the D.5 had been repaired and improved as the Dunne D.8. An example was flown across the Channel to France, and Farnborough evaluated the type. Production was licensed to both Nieuport in France and Burgess in America.

Through 1913 and 1914 it became apparent that there was little future in Dunne's designs. Although the principle of inherent stability was proven and slowly gaining acceptance, mainstream aircraft design was now proceeding along an entirely different path.

Dunne's continuing ill health was also making it difficult for him to remain active in aeronautics. The Blair Atholl Syndicate was liquidated in 1914 and Dunne moved on to other areas.

Later years[edit]

Dunne published his first book, on dry-fly fishing, in 1924, with a new method of making realistic imitation flies.

Meanwhile, he was studying precognitive dreams which he believed he and others had experienced. By 1927 he had evolved the theory of serial time for which he would become famous and published an account of it, together with his dream researches, in his next book "An experiment with time." Further works developing this topic included The Serial Universe (1934), The New Immortality (1938), Nothing Dies (1940) and Intrusions? (published posthumously in 1955).

In 1928 he married Cicely, daughter of Geoffrey Cecil Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 18th Baron Saye and Sele.


Dunne died in Banbury, England on 24 August 1949, at age 74.[7]

Dunne aircraft designs[edit]

A Dunne-style biplane in the US Army, c. 1917

Dunne created some of the first practical and stable aircraft. They were unusual in being of tailless swept configuration.

  • Dunne D.1 (1907, flown as a glider; the powered version was badly damaged on the launch apparatus.)
  • Dunne D.2 (proposed small glider version of the Dunne-Huntington type, not built.)
  • Dunne-Huntington biplane or triplane (design 1906–1907, flying 1910,[8] modified and improved 1913; biplane wing with large foreplane close in front, leading some to refer to it as a triplane.[9] Constructed by Huntington to Dunne's design, the only type which was not a tailless swept design.)
  • Dunne D.3 (1908 glider.)
  • Dunne D.4 (1908, powered biplane using the D.1 wings. Achieved short hops.)
  • Dunne D.5 (1910, powered biplane; built by Short Brothers and sometimes referred to as the Short-Dunne 5, this was the first Dunne design to fly and also the first tailless type to fly, and it proved itself stable in flight. Following an accident it was rebuilt in modified form as the D.8.[10])
  • Dunne D.6 (1911 monoplane.)
  • Dunne D.7, (1911–1912 monoplane. The D.7-bis was a two-seater version of the D.7.)
  • Dunne D.8 (1912, rebuilt and modified D5, following an accident; flew from Eastchurch to Paris in 1913; license built by Nieuport and Burgess.)
  • Dunne D.9 (Biplane design, of which five examples were thought to be under construction through 1912–1913.[9])
  • Dunne D.10 (1912, shorter-span version of D.8.)
  • Burgess-Dunne (D.8 and derived variants manufactured under license in U.S from 1913 to 1916; land- and seaplane versions; flew with U.S. and Canadian military air arms.)[11]

Dry fly fishing[edit]

Dunne was a keen dry fly fisherman. At the time Halford's theories were current and his flies commonplace, but Dunne noticed that they did not match the real flies he saw while fishing. He was one of the first writers to challenge the Halford school, developing new theories and a number of dry flies based on the translucence of a fly when seen from underneath in direct sunlight and publishing them in his book, Sunshine and the Dry Fly, in 1924.

In Dunne's designs the hooks were painted white to reflect light, bound in methodically-coloured fibres and oiled to make the fibres more translucent.

This method was still recommended a decade later, as in Robert Hartman's About Fishing (Arthur Barker, 1935.). Flies to his pattern were still available from Hardy Bros. as late as 1966.[12]

Philosophical serialism[edit]

Dunne believed that he experienced precognitive dreams. The first he records occurred in 1898, in which he dreamed of the time on his watch before waking up and checking it.[13] Several such experiences, some quite dramatic, led him to undertake a scientific investigation into the phenomenon. Based on years of experimentation with such precognitive dreams and hypnagogic states, both on himself and on others, he claimed that in such states, the mind was not shackled to the present and was able to perceive events in the past and future with equal facility. He used this to support his new theory of time and consciousness. His landmark An Experiment with Time (1927) recounts the story and also includes his account of the theory of serial time. It has been frequently reprinted.

Dunne proposed that our experience of time as linear was an illusion brought about by human consciousness. He argued that past, present and future were continuous in a higher-dimensional reality and only experienced sequentially because of our mental perception of them. He went further, proposing an infinite regress of higher time dimensions inhabited by the conscious observer, which he called "serial time."

In The Serial Universe (1934), The New Immortality (1938), Nothing Dies (1940) and Intrusions? (1955), he further elaborated on the concept of "serialism," examining its relation to current physics in relativity and quantum mechanics, and to psychology, parapsychology and theology.

Literary impact[edit]

Dunne's theory offered a scientific explanation for ideas of consciousness being explored on a wide scale at the time. Such figures as Aldous Huxley and J. B. Priestley enthusiastically embraced his ideas. Priestley based his plays Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and Dangerous Corner, on them. There are also parallels between Dunne's theory of Time and that put forward in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets although whether Eliot was directly influenced by Dunne is not clear.[14][15]

The 1971 film Escape from the Planet of the Apes, third in the series, used Dunne's infinite regression in time and his analogy of an artist painting a picture of himself painting a picture of himself and so on, in order to offer a scientific basis for time travel.[citation needed] This pictorial analogy does not appear in An Experiment with Time but was presented in The Serial Universe and subsequent works.

Published works[edit]

  • Sunshine and the Dry-Fly (1924)
  • An Experiment with Time (1927)
  • The Serial Universe (1934)
  • The League of North-West Europe (1936)
  • The Jumping Lions of Borneo (1937)
  • The New Immortality (1938)
  • An Experiment with St. George (1938)
  • Nothing Dies (1940)
  • Intrusions? (1955)



  1. ^ 1911 Census of St George, London, RG14/442, John William Dunne, Belgrave Mansions, Belgrave, London. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that he was born and brought up in South Africa.
  2. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27349. p. 5670. 27 August 1901. Retrieved 15 August 2014.
  3. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27425. p. 2505. 15 April 1902.
  4. ^ Walker (1974).
  5. ^ "Correspondence: Letter from Science Museum." Flight, 17 June 1955, p. 852. Quote:The following is an extract from a note in our records written and signed by J. W. Dunne on 28 June 1928.
  6. ^ p558 Flight 27 May 1943
  7. ^ "Pioneer Designer Passes", Flight, 1 September 1949: 259 
  8. ^ "British Flyers at Sheppey — A side view of Professor A. K. Huntington's machine." Flight, 30 April 1910, p. 331, via archive. Retrieved: 3 May 2010.
  9. ^ a b Jane 1913, p. 47.
  10. ^ Angelucci and Matricardi 1977
  11. ^ Deane, W.J. The Burgess Company 1909–1919. Wakefield, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Aviation Historical Society, 2009l.
  12. ^ Herd, A.N.; "Sunshine and the Dry Fly", A Fly Fishing History, [1] (Retrieved 3 Mar 2014).
  13. ^ Dunne, J. W. An Experiment with Time. London: Faber, 1939, (fourth edition), 1927 (first edition).
  14. ^ Flieger, Verlyn. "Time in the Stone of Suleiman," Huttar, Charles Adolph and Peter J. Schakel. The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams, by. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 1996, p. 82. Retrieved: 29 May 2011.
  15. ^ Cleveland Smith, Grover. T. S. Eliot and the Use of Memory. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 1996, p. 96. Retrieved: 29 May 2011.


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