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 volunteered for 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.

Recovered and 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] He fell ill again and was diagnosed with heart disease, causing him to again return home the next year. Much of his remaining time in the Army would be spent on aeronautical work while on sick leave.[4]


While on Army sick leave in 1901, Dunne began a systematic study of flight. Like many other pioneers he closely observed birds in flight however, unlike most, he was convinced that a safe aeroplane needed to have inherent aerodynamic stability. Encouraged among others by H.G. Wells, whom he befriended in 1902, he made a great number of small test models which would eventually lead to the development of a stable tailless swept wing configuration.[4]

On his return to England for the second time he resumed his study of flight and by 1906 had developed a tailless, swept-wing "arrowhead" configuration which was inherently stable and would become his trademark.

At the request of Colonel John Capper, the unit's commanding officer, in June 1906 he was assigned to the new Army Balloon Factory in South Farnborough.

A manned glider, the D.1, with provision for fitting engines and propellers, was constructed under great secrecy and, in July 1907, was taken to Blair Atholl in the Scottish Highlands for flight testing. The D.1 made several unsustained glides during secret trials conducted in the hills north of the village. On its one successful flight, Capper flew it for just long enough to demonstrate its stability before crashing into a wall. It was repaired and fitted with its powered chassis, but crashed on its first attempted flight when the takeoff trolley veered off course.

In the winter of 1907–1908 Dunne designed the Dunne-Huntington triplane and a smaller glider, the D.2, to test the design. The glider was not built but the full-scale craft would eventually be built by A. K. Huntington and flown successfully from 1910.

The 1908 season at Blair Atholl saw two new "arrowhead" machines brought up from Farnborough, the D.3 man-carrying glider and the D.4 powered aeroplane. The glider eventually flew well at the hands of Lt. Launcelot Gibbs and the D.4 had limited success being badly underpowered and consequently, in Dunne's words, "more a hopper than a flyer".[5]

Dunne returned to the Balloon Factory in the midst of a Government Inquiry into military aeronautics. As a result of its findings the War Office stopped all support for powered aircraft and in the Spring of 1909 Dunne left the Balloon Factory. By now, he 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 and took up hangar space on the Aero Club's flying ground at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey. Short Brothers had a workshop there and were contracted to build the D.5, a similar biplane in which Dunne installed a more powerful 35 hp engine. Following a series of increasingly successful flights, on 20 December 1910 Dunne demonstrated the extraordinary stability of the D.5 to an amazed audience that included two official observers, Orville Wright and Griffith Brewer. He was even able to take both hands off the controls and make notes on a piece of paper.[6] Shortly afterwards, another pilot crashed the D.5.

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 1911-1913. British-built examples were flown both at Sheppey and at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain, and one was also built by the Astra company (later acquired by Nieuport) in France.

Parallel with the monoplane work, the Dunne D.8 had been developed from the D.5. An example was flown across the Channel to France, and a much modernised Farnborough evaluated the type. Production was licensed to both Nieuport in France and Burgess in America.

Through 1913 and 1914 Dunne's continuing ill health was making it difficult for him to remain active in aeronautics. Production of the War Office machines for Farnborough ran into difficulties and only one was ever delivered. The Blair Atholl Syndicate was eventually liquidated and Dunne moved on to other areas.

Throughout World War I, mainstream aircraft design proceeded along an entirely different path. Although the principle of inherent stability was proven and slowly gaining acceptance, Dunne's designs were now obsolete.

Later years[edit]

Dunne published his first book, on dry-fly fishing, in 1924, with a new method of making realistic artificial 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 and they lived for a good deal of time after that at the family seat of Broughton Castle.


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


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

Dunne created some of the first practical and stable aircraft. The majority were unusual in being of tailless swept configuration. Stability was achieved by progressively rolling the leading edge down from root to tip, a feature known as washout. Careful balance of its characteristics allowed the use of only two flight controls. A disadvantage of this was that, without a rudder, crosswind landings were not possible and the approach had to be made into the wind.

The aircraft designed by Dunne were:

  • 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 triplane (design 1907–1908, flying 1910,[8][9] Triple tandem wing with central wing high-mounted and smaller fore wing, leading some to refer to it as a biplane.[10] Constructed by Professor A. K. 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, 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.[11])
  • 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). An example flew from Eastchurch to Paris in 1913; license built by the French company Nieuport and the American Burgess Company (see below).
  • Dunne D.9 (unequal-span biplane or sesquiplane project, of which five examples were said to be under construction in 1913.[9][8])
  • 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.)[12]

Dry fly fishing[edit]

Dunne was a keen dry fly fisherman. At the time Halford's theories were fashionable 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. The book was revolutionary, "amounting almost to heresy."[13]

The first part of the book is primarily a treatise on the vision of the trout and its response to prey or a lure. The second part comprises instructions for tying the flies which he had designed.

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. Writers who have endorsed Dunne's work include Robert Hartman and Arthur Ransome.[14][15] Flies to his pattern were still available from Hardy Bros. as late as 1966.[16]

Dreams and 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.[17] 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.

Dunne's theory offered a scientific explanation for ideas of consciousness being explored on a wide scale at the time. It became well known and was discussed by philosophers such as J. A. Gunn, C. D. Broad and M.F. Cleugh, and the parapsychologist G. N. M. Tyrrell. While some accepted his dream observations and the general thrust of his arguments, the majority rejected his infinite regress as logically flawed.

Literary impact[edit]

The ideas underlying Serialism have been explored by many literary figures in works of both fiction and criticism.

In fiction, H. G. Wells used them for the framing narrative in The Shape of Things to Come. The author J. B. Priestley based three of his "time plays", Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and Dangerous Corner, on them. Other writers whose work was influenced by Serialism include John Buchan (The Gap in the Curtain), James Hilton, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Critical essays on Serialism also appeared, both positive and negative. Wells included "New Light on mental Life" in his collection of articles Way The World is Going. Priestley gave an accessible account in his study, Man and Time. and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short essay "Time and J. W. Dunne", which was later included in his anthology Other Inquisitions.

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), published in the US as St George and the Witches
  • Nothing Dies (1940)
  • Intrusions? (1955)



  1. ^ 1911 Census of St George, London, RG14/442, John William Dunne, Belgrave Mansions, Belgrave, London.
  2. ^ "No. 27349". The London Gazette. 27 August 1901. p. 5670. 
  3. ^ "No. 27425". The London Gazette. 15 April 1902. p. 2505. 
  4. ^ a b 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. ^ Poulsen, 1943
  7. ^ "Pioneer Designer Passes", Flight: 259, 1 September 1949 
  8. ^ a b Lewis 1962, pp.231-232.
  9. ^ a b Jane 1913, p. 47.
  10. ^ "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.
  11. ^ Angelucci, E. and Matricardi, P.; "World Aircraft: Origins World War 1". London: Sampson Low, 1977. ISBN 0-528-88165-5.
  12. ^ Deane, W.J. The Burgess Company 1909–1919. Wakefield, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Aviation Historical Society, 2009l.
  13. ^ Review of Sunshine and the Dry Fly, Nature 114, 11 October 1924, pp531-532. doi:10.1038/114531b0.[1]
  14. ^ Robert Hartman; About Fishing, Arthur Barker, 1935.
  15. ^ Arthur Ransome; Readers' Guides: Fishing, National Book League, 1955.
  16. ^ Herd, A.N.; "Sunshine and the Dry Fly" A Fly Fishing History, (Retrieved 3 Mar 2014).
  17. ^ Dunne, J. W. An Experiment with Time. London: Faber, 1927.


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