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Dunne, J. W.

Category: Genius


John William Dunne FRAeS (1875–1949) was a British soldier, inventor, aeronautical engineer and philosopher.

In most respects he was a genius, but he was a down-to-earth genius as opposed to the type of inspired head-in-the-clouds genius we have come to expect on the site.

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.

His hobby was fly fishing and Dunne published his first book, on dry-fly fishing, in 1924, with a new method of making realistic artificial flies.  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. His book, Sunshine and the Dry Fly, was published in 1924. The book was considered revolutionary, "amounting almost to heresy."

But he is on the site because of his studies of precognitive dreams. By 1927, Dunne had evolved the theory of  time for which he would become famous and published an account of it, together with his dream research, in his 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 these later books, he further elaborated on his hypothesis, examining its relation to current physics in relativity and quantum mechanics, and to psychology, parapsychology and theology.

An Experiment with Time


Dunne found 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. 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 found 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 book An Experiment with Time (1927) was his record of the experiences and his hypothesis.


It has been rather surprising to discover how many persons there are who, while willing to concede that we habitually observe events before they occur, suppose that such prevision may be treated as a minor logical difficulty, to be met by some trifling readjustment in one or another of our sciences or by the addition of a dash of transcendentalism to our metaphysics. It may well be emphasized that no tinkering or doctoring of that kind could avail in the smallest degree. If prevision be a fact, it is a fact which destroys absolutely the entire basis of all our past opinions, of the universe. Bear in mind, for example, that the foreseen event may be avoided.

Dunne proposed that our experience of time was an illusion. He argued that past, present and future were continuous in ‘another reality’ and only experienced sequentially because of our mental perception of them. We have since realised that the ‘other reality’ is not needed as long as one recognises that the quantum level – the very very small - provides a means of storing past, present and future. 

My own feeling is that the ' becoming ' is really there in the physical world, but is not formulated in the description of it in classical physics (and is, in fact, useless to a scheme of laws which is fully deterministic). - Yours truly, A. S. Eddington. Observatory, Cambridge, 1928, Feb. 1.

Furthermore one has to accept the concept of a ‘software’ [analogously] universe as opposed to a ‘hardware’ one.  The atom is actually a ‘software’ functional object, not a hardware one.

The loom of time formed from perceptions

There are a number of visions, on the site, for example, where the person 'sees' [perceives without eyes] the layer being viewed as jewel like - crystalline with extraordinary colours. 

This lends credence to the hypothesis  that the lattice/matrix of software objects/atoms of the universe are continually executing and each execution not only broadcasts the functional results of the execution of each object/atom to all other atoms, [which then forms the input for the next execution], but creates a crystalline shape to a template pattern to represent the change. The functions thus largely control the shape - an argument put forward for millennia by those who believe that the mind and the functions determine illness as much as pathogens do, and that ageing is a functional process.  We are programmed to die at a certain point.  J B Priestley recognised this in his friend Thomas Wolfe the author – who appeared to have had a premonition he would die early.


In infinitesimally small increments [no doubt Planck's constant would be mentioned here by physicists], the universe as a whole moves on a unit of time and entirely re-creates itself.  In its wake as it moves on, a record of the execution is left as a trail [somewhat like the log kept so that an action in the computer can be undone] which is why people can, via their mind, explore past perceptions and explore the group perception of the past as if they were there.  But an ‘extra dimension’ is not needed it can all be stored in the atom as a software record.

Ahead of them - fainter and less defined, and capable of being altered, the future -  the possible outcomes of the action [given the functions are known] - hence the mind is capable of a form of simulation and this is why some are able to prophesy, why as Dunne was able to show premonitions and prophecy is possible.

In addition the Great Work - the plan for the evolution of the universe, also lies 'ahead' and dictates certain outcomes of the executions, which is why some people know their destiny and why fate cannot be avoided.

Dunne, J. W.  - An Experiment with Time
Was it possible that ….the universe was, after all, really stretched out in Time, and that the lop-sided view we had of it — a view with the "future" part unaccountably missing, cut off from the growing "past" part by a travelling "present moment" — was due to a purely mentally imposed barrier which existed only when we were awake? So that, in reality, the associational network stretched, not merely this way and that way in Space, but also backwards and forwards in Time ; and the dreamer's attention, following in natural, unhindered fashion the easiest pathway among the ramifications, would be continually crossing and recrossing that properly non-existent equator which we, waking, ruled quite arbitrarily athwart the whole.

Exploring group perception

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.

His ideas were also used by a number of science fiction and general fiction writers, 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 his hypotheses include John Buchan (The Gap in the Curtain), James Hilton, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  J B Priestley gave an account of Dunne’s ideas in his study, Man and Time.

Man and Time – J B Priestley


Until I looked through all the letters sent to me by way of the Monitor program, I had not realised how many people had been reading Dunne. Without his examples, and his advice on the immediate recording of dreams, I suspect that at least a third of the best precognitive dreams I have been sent would never have come my way. ….. he remains so far the most important figure in the campaign against the conventional idea of Time. Those of us who are Time-haunted owe him an enormous debt …..

Because the Time problem itself is so widely ignored and attempts to solve it are generally shirked, Dunne never became a national figure. During the last war (when he returned to aircraft design) and immediately after it, his health was bad and his circumstances never easy. He was forgotten by everyone except those of us who keep thinking about Time. But we should regard him as one of the world's heroic pioneers.

Career and Life

The D-5

John William Dunne was born in County Kildare, Ireland, 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.  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. 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.

Man and Time – J B Priestley

John William Dunne, …. began aeronautical experiments as early as 1900; in 1904, he invented the "stable, tailless type of aerofoil which goes by his name"; he built and flew both monoplanes and biplanes of his own type, and finally, in 1906-7, he designed and built the first British military airplane, tested secretly by the War Office in 1907-8. In the early years of the First War, he served as a Brigade musketry-instructor. His very first book was about dry-fly fishing, one of his passions. An Experiment with Time was published in 1927, and has been steadily re-printed.


He married the eldest daughter of the 18th Baron Saye and Sele, and had a son and daughter. His clubs, according to an old Who's Who, were the United Service and the Flyfishers'.

I mention those clubs because they should help to destroy any possible image of him as a dreamy crank or crackpot. Anybody less like that professional "occultist," the man who knows about "secret ancient wisdom" and "hidden-knowledge" and astral bodies and vibrations is hard to imagine. As I had been one of the earliest and most enthusiastic reviewers of An Experiment with Time, I came to know him, though never intimately, at his own suggestion, he explained his ideas to the cast of my play Time and the Conways, a cast that always played well but never better than when they were pretending to understand what he was telling them; and not long before the war I spent the night at the ancient Broughton Castle, when he was staying there with his brother-in-law, and we had our last and longest talk in those fantastic surroundings.

He was a slightish man with a good big head; he belonged to the military section of Britain's old upper class, and had its staccato and not highly articulate manner in talk: he looked and behaved like the old regular-officer type crossed with a mathematician and engineer; and, I repeat, he was as far removed from any suggestion of the seer, the sage, the crank and crackpot, as it is possible to imagine.


Though full of ideas and bubbling with enthusiasm, he was no gifted expositor; and in metaphysical debate he was no match for the professional philosophers who sharply disagreed with him. But though he may have made mistakes, …. they were honest mistakes: He was a man of intellectual integrity and as courageous as a thinker and writer as he had been as a man of action………

He may be said to have challenged the conventional positivist idea of Time on its own ground. He did not start from any strong religious prejudices. He had no secret love- as many of us have---of the miraculous. He had not been visited by any mystical revelations. He was not a sentimentally poetic character, outraged by the contemporary world. He was a hard-headed military engineering type, whose hobby was not fantastic speculation and juggling with ideas but fly-fishing. He was, as no doubt they said in the United Service Club, "a sound fellow," even though he did fool around with airplanes in 1906, when sounder fellows knew that these things would never have any real value.


But something happened to him that he could not explain-this "displacement of time"-and just as he had worried away at his aeronautical problems, so now he worried away at this Time business. His final theory may have taken him much too far, but it cannot be denied that he began tackling the problem in a tough realistic spirit, one more genuinely scientific than that of those scientists who had a suspicion that the problem was there but ignored it. Almost all of them ignored Dunne too. Like many another original thinker before him, he was a nuisance.

About his originality, his entirely new approach, the audacity and sweep of his conclusions, there can be no question. He opened a way, and, whatever my reservations may be, I think it is the right way. It is right, to my mind, because he rejects the idea, almost a dogma now, that our lives are completely contained by chronological uni-dimensional time…..



Wikipedia provides a good description of all his experiments with flight that show how innovative,  original and pioneering he was in this area too, and we have not repeated them here.  In summary, however, by 1906 he had developed a tailless, swept-wing "arrowhead" plane design which was inherently stable and would become his trademark.  He also designed a manned glider, the D.1, with provision for fitting engines and propellers; and in the winter of 1907–1908 he designed the Dunne-Huntington triplane and a smaller glider, the D.2, eventually built by A. K. Huntington and flown successfully from 1910.  In 1908, he developed  two new "arrowhead" machines - the D.3 man-carrying glider and the D.4 powered aeroplane.

In 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.  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.  Parallel with the monoplane work, the Dunne D.8 had been developed from the D.5. In 1913 an example was flown across the Channel to France.  Eventually ill-health forced Dunne to bow out of this pursuit and turn to philosophy as we have seen above.

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.


  • 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)


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