H.G. Wells

The author who people most often mention in relation to J.W. Dunne is H.G. Wells, who has a reputation for predicting technological innovations and their social and political applications. How far was Dunne inspired by Wells in his theory of time? And how far was Wells inspired by Dunne in his aeronautical visions?

Dunne’s references to Wells

In chapters 18 and 19 of An Experiment with Time (1927), Dunne discusses the Time Traveller’s theory of time in The Time Machine (1895), citing the idea of time as a fourth dimension as an advance on Hinton’s spatial fourth dimension. Dunne praises the exposition given by Wells’s character as having ‘a clearness and conciseness which has rarely, if ever, been surpassed’, while criticising both Wells and Hinton for failing ‘to mention that anything which moves in Time must take Time over its movement.’

Wells’ references to Dunne

The War in the Air (1908) is said to be inspired by Wells’ contact with Dunne’s aeronautical work. Dunne is said to have arranged flights for Wells in 1912/13.

The character Captain Douglas in Bealby: A Holiday (1915) is said to be based on J.W. Dunne

‘The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper’ (1931), refers to Dunne at the beginning and the end

The Shape of Things to Come (1933) refers to Dunne in the framing narrative (‘The Dream Book of Dr Philip Raven’)

Wells’s comments about An Experiment with Time in the Sunday Express:

I find it a fantastically interesting book. It has stirred my imagination vividly, and I think most imaginative people will be stirred by the queer things he has advanced in it. I do not think it has been given nearly enough attention.

Contrasting negative comments appeared in Wells’s review of The New Immortality in 1939.

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One response to “H.G. Wells

  1. During the interregnum of 1902 when Dunne was recovering from his first bout of fever contracted during the Boer War, he and Wells became firm friends. Dunne wanted to make a more practical flying machine than the clumsy observation balloons used by the Army, and both he and Wells agreed that it needed to be stable in the air and safe for the inexperienced soldier to fly. Wells claimed that he impressed this need upon the young soldier, but Dunne writes of this period in a tone which suggests that he needed no convincing. Dunne carried out many experiments in Wells’ garden, from where the character of Captain Douglas took its inspiration. For The War in the Air, Dunne sent Wells models and drawings – at that time he was studying rotor aeroplanes, broadly similar to the wasp-like machine flown by Betteridge and seen in one illustration “fluttering round the Nelson Column” in Trafalgar Square. But the tale was too full of the Zeppelin menace to be truly inspired by Dunne – rather, it caught and exploited a popular paranoia of the day. Wells later wrote a screenplay for the film Things to Come, released in 1936. and the new order’s aeroplanes are very evidently of Dunne’s mainstream tailless-swept lineage, updated via the work of GTR Hill (of Westland-Hill Pterodactyl fame and advised by Dunne) and the then-emerging fashion for low-wing monoplanes (the Spitfire and Hurricane had only just flown).
    But Wells did not significantly affect Dunne’s ideas about Time. Those had already begun to take shape in 1885, when he pondered the distinction between the “map” of yesterday, today and tomorrow versus the moment of now which carried us through them at an inexorable rate. Wells would later dismiss his Time Machine as a nothing more than a tale-spinner’s fancy. He was intrigued by Serialism but far from convinced: it served him as a plot device for The Shape of Things to Come. But what stuck firmest in his throat was Dunne’s extrapolation of the Infiniteness of the regress and the Immortality it conferred to an identity with Dunne’s Christian God. For Wells was an ardent materialist. He did not mince his words but condemned it outright.
    Neither let this spoil their friendship. Wells’ characteristically immodest wedding present to Dunne and his bride was a signed limited-edition set of his published works to date. Sadly this set would go missing, presumed stolen, from the home of Dunne’s daughter in 2011.

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