The archive of J. W. Dunne (1875-1949), aeronautical designer and author

Item author: J W Dunne
Item date: 1875-1949
Grant Value: 15,000
Item cost: £38,000
Item date acquired: 2015
Item institution: Science Museum
Town/City: London
London borough: LB Kensington and Chelsea

The purchase of this substantial archive relating to John William Dunne (1875-1949) was a major priority for the Science Museum. With the generous support of the Friends of the National Libraries the collection will now be accessible for the general public to research and enjoy.

Dunne is an intriguing and underappreciated figure in British history. Unusually, he achieved distinction in his day both as an aeronautical designer and pioneer and then later as an author and philosopher. He began his career as an army officer, serving in the Boer War. A heart condition returned him to England, where his interest in human flight took off. His many innovative aircraft designs, including an extremely stable tailless aircraft, ensured his high regard within aeronautical circles. As an accomplished engineer Dunne was honoured as one of the original six Fellows of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

The collection consists of personal and professional correspondence, design notes and calculations, drawings, paper models of aircraft and pocket diaries, as well as photographs and negative plates of planes and airmen. This will be housed alongside the Museum’s existing collections to create the definitive aeronautic archive relating to pre-1910s flight in the United Kingdom. Through this acquisition the Museum can provide a more balanced account of early British flight, giving Dunne’s achievements better representation alongside his contemporaries.

The archive is a pivotal assessment of Dunne as a literary figure and philosopher, containing a wide range of correspondence regarding his works. Much of these relate to his best-known book An Experiment with Time (1927), which explored theories of time, consciousness and existence. Dunne’s work influenced a large readership and was incorporated into fiction by a significant array of authors, including W. H. Auden, J. B. Priestley (notably in his play, An Inspector Calls), Jorge Luis Borges, John Buchan, J. R. R. Tolkien, Arnold Bennett and Flann O'Brien. The amplification of his theories through a broad range of literary genres gave them lasting influence in everyday life throughout the twentieth century, and despite the often obscure theoretical content, An Experiment with Time has remained in print almost continuously since its first publication.

Based in the Museum’s Library and Archives collection in Wroughton, J. W. Dunne’s archive has been propelled into the public domain. This acquisition will be a rich vein for academic researchers and the general public for many years to come.