An Experiment With Time — An Appreciation

An Experiment With Time — by J.W. Dunne.  A & C Black Ltd., 1929, 2nd Edition.

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

                — T.S. Eliot

Eternity in love with the products of time…
               — William Blake

Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.
— Ray Cummings

Many years ago when I was 11, our family moved to a valley in northern British Columbia halfway between the interior town of Prince George and the city of Prince Rupert on the coast.  We moved into a log cabin that we had seen before only in photos, which measured perhaps 30 feet by 24 on the interior, with a rough plank floor.  It had been carefully built in the early 1900s, and still stands today.

Our first winter there in 1962-63 was one of much more snow, and colder below-zero degrees Fahrenheit temperatures, than we were used to in our former home in northwest Washington State.

We installed a big wood-burning cook stove, I remember, before the cold season began in earnest.  All our belongings in their boxes and cases and trunks were piled high in the middle of the cabin, including a very old Victrola wind-up phonograph cabinet.  It could play my dad’s Josh White and old foxtrot dance 78s with dull steel needles carefully inserted into the playing head.  My father, and much less so my mother, had a vision of us making our way as modern pioneers in a place that lacked electricity, telephones and most of the usual amenities.

I think it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  My two younger brothers and I were given the treasures of space, the wild outdoors, productive chores, and real and imagined adventures in a landscape that seemed to receive us willingly.

My parents set up their bedroom at one end of the cabin.  That space also received shelving that extended along the entire end wall, up and down around the window cut-out there with its new double panels of translucent plastic sheeting, and for a short distance along the walls on either side.  It was a little tricky to build shelving on the half-rounds of the interior log shapes, but Dad managed it.

Books and more books

A lot of the pile in the center of cabin were boxes and boxes of books, and as they were placed on their shelving, the pile began to shrink a little and we had more room to move.

The books were mostly hardbacks, and it’s evident to me now that my parents put a lot of thought into what they brought with us.  There was an extensive amount of English literature that boys might like, with works by Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Ernest Thompson Seton.  We brought us with a set of My Book House, an educational series containing fables, fairy tales and adventures graded for different age levels.  My father made sure to bring a complete set of the famed 1911 version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. There was much more, fiction and non-fiction, including pamphlets and booklets about such contemporary concerns as radiation and nuclear war.

A couple of years after that first winter, and indeed, after my father died of a stroke, I remember pulling down and opening for the first time J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment With Time.  It was obviously an older volume and I was idle and curious.

Before I describe more of its contents, which opened an enquiring 14-year-old’s mind to the possibility of wider vistas, let me give you some details about John William Dunne himself, a quite interesting figure.

JW Dunne and flying machines

Born in Ireland in 1875 of Anglo-Irish aristocrats, at the age of 13 he imagined a flying machine that needed no steering.  According to Wikipedia, he became very interested in the flight of the Zanortia seed which would have a bearing on his future career as an aeronautics designer during the very early days of flying.

But first he joined a volunteer cavalry regiment which fought during the Second Boer War. In poor health, he returned to England, and began to test his tailless airplane designs, encouraged by family friend H.G. Wells.  He invented a stable tailless airfoil with swept-back v-shaped wings, following the design of that seed of his youth.  He produced both monoplane and biplane versions.  The pilot rode at the very front. The whole thing, in one of his later designs, was pushed by two propellors.

Eventually the airplanes became well-known and received a limited extent of commercial interest.  But it turns out that planes of great flying stability are not particularly maneuverable, especially for military purposes.  His designs were bought out and modified slightly.  One such became the first Canadian military aircraft.

Dunne was able to retire and live on the income from his various patents.  As an avid fly fisherman, he wrote a book on that subject.  He also wrote on politics, advocating in 1938 a body similar to NATO to replace the failed League of Nations.

He became interested in dreams and the nature of time after having several dreams about major disasters before they actually occurred.  He began studying his dreams in a systematic way, and began the speculations about the nature of time that comprise his book, first published in 1927, An Experiment With Time.

Science fiction and reality

So this is what I picked up and read from our bookshelves with some amazement as a teenager who constantly devoured science-fiction.  At that time Analog Science Fact & Fiction magazine was a favorite, and for a short period in the 1960s was published as a slick larger magazine size before reverting back to the smaller digest format.  During that time, it published many stories about telepathy, teleportation, precognition and occasionally time travel under the influential, and controversial, editorship of John W. Campbell.

The teenage version of myself was amazed and tickled that this old book sitting in our home for years actually took some aspects of what appealed to my wildest imagination, and considered it seriously.

Although the precognition in dreams idea is interesting and I wouldn’t reject the possibility, given all the anecdotal experiences — it has never happened to me.  (But then I remember dreams only rarely.)  Dunne’s theory of time intrigues me more.

Dreaming becomes an entry point to the study of the human perception of time, as Dunne speculated, because it is then that our usual sense of the unidirectional flow of time is able to loosen and broaden. Past events and future ones may be equally amenable to dream perception.

Basically his idea is that all moments in time are taking place all at once, if you can imagine taking an eternal point of view.

Infinite regression

He uses the idea of infinite regression to illustrate our limited perception of time’s nature. Time is a series that it is necessary to be out of in a second series in order to observe it, and in yet a third series or time in order to perceive that.  According to Dunne this leads to an infinite regression of a series of times that span forever, like looking at a reflection of ourselves holding a mirror infinitely into the distance.

Dunne went on to devise an elaborate mathematical theory to support his ideas, which he called Serialism.  He described his ideas in considerable more detail in another volume, The Serial Universe (1934).

Now I don’t know if all this is close to reality or not, but it at least opens the door to considering that the arrow of time may not be so simple after all.

How were Dunne’s theories received?

In science, the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington wrote to Dunne agreeing with him about his idea of Serialism.  In 1981, the science journal New Scientist published a positive review of the book. Paul Davies, though, in his book About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution dismisses Dunne’s arguments, Wikipedia says, as “entertaining.”  In a 1998 letter to the New York Times, mathematician Marc Groz noted that physicist Stephen Hawking’s concept of “imaginary time” was predated by Dunne.

In literature and philosophy, Dunne had a greater impact, if anything.  However, both H.G. Wells and Jorge Luis Borges criticised Dunne for turning time into a spatial concept. Borges also said in an article on Dunne in his book Other Inquisitions 1937-1952 that:

“Dunne assures us that in death we shall learn how to handle eternity successfully. We shall recover all the moments of our lives and we shall combine them as we please.  God and our friends and Shakespeare will collaborate with us.

“With such a splendid thesis as that, any fallacy committed by the author becomes insignificant.”

J.B. Priestly and C.S. Lewis, and even Tolkien, used Dunne’s ideas in their work, and Dunne was also said to have influenced T.S. Eliot, as can be seen in Eliot’s quote above.

Time as music

Dunne asks us to think of our experiences as keys sounded upon a piano keyboard, and to consider that we experience time as the sequential playing out of a piece of music.  If we were to somehow loosen that sequential perspective we might find, as Dunne writes in one of his later books, Nothing Dies:

‘”The whole range of musical composition lies before you, and this with an instrument, the keyboard of which is a lifetime of human experience of – every description. Do not fear or shirk the experience. The more varied it is, the finer becomes your instrument, and the richer the possible effects. There are great notes to be produced. – There are sombre tones. And there are other players operating other instruments giving the possibility of orchestral effects – effects which must increase in complexity and magnificence as agreement is reached between more and more performers; until, I am now scientifically certain, the Hand of a Great Conductor will become manifest, and we shall discover we are taking part in a Symphony of All Creation. The magnitude of your own share does not matter; for the smaller it may be, the better you will hear the whole. But, to hear that symphony, while playing your own part therein, is absorption.”

Well, I’m not completely sure on that.

But I do like to think that the cabin of my boyhood, the best of the times around it, and the discovery of Dunne’s book are still out there in the grand symphony of it all.



Some further notes…..

First, the images from top down:

1) One of Dunne’s airplanes, with its swept back wing design modelled upon a flying seed.

2) A diagram to illustrate Dunne’s idea of regression, although the regression only goes a couple of steps….

I’ve found Dunne’s books, An Experiment With Time and The Serial Universe available online for view in pdf form.  Others of his later works, variations of the same subject, long out of print are being sold as ebooks for minimal price.

There are a couple of fascinating articles about early flight and Dunne’s role in it.  One is on a site dedicated to Lawrence Hargrave as the father of Australian aviation, called Flying Wings.  Another article also covers the History of the Flying Wing at the Century of Flight website.

There are a number of interesting sites on the nature of time in general. One I found, by the research physicist Manoj Thulasidas, is an excerpt about the perception of time from his self-published book The Unreal Universe.  Another is at the Stanford University page on The Experience and Perception of Time.

And finally, I want to leave you with an intriguing mystery (or a shared hallucination) that I came across looking up a few things on the web.

It’s called the Moberly-Jourdain Incident in France in 1901.  Two female academics described what they experienced as a “time slip” and later wrote a book anonymously about what they say happened, which according to Wikipedia, was subject to much ridicule.

You can read what our Mr. Dunne says on the subject since he wrote a note included in their book.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Awareness, Book Review, Culture, Remembering, Science, Science Fiction

6 Comments on “An Experiment With Time — An Appreciation”

  1. Rick Matz Says:

    Wonderful article. Wonderful memories.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks a lot!


  3. MDW Says:

    As a kid I loved to spend time browsing through the encyclopedia – especially when there where things like overlaying transparencies of the innards of a frog. My mother still has those old World Book volumes on her shelf.

    I love how convenient it is to use the web to look up almost anything at a monent’s notice, but I miss just flipping through books and finding stuff that may be off the subject, but still worth knowing about.


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Mark,

    The web does almost replace some of those encyclopedia browsing habits, and there’s even services like Stumbleupon which provide interesting simulated accidental discoveries….

    But there’s nothing like having the weight of a volume on your lap, the thin paper underhand as you idly flip the page and discover… the United States of the Ionian Islands, say.

    Thanks for stopping by….


  5. Guy Inchbald Says:

    Good to see new people taking an interest in Dunne.
    If I may correct one error, he dissed the Zanonia seed strongly, in favour of seagulls. No Zanonia fan has ever made a tailless airplane work.
    The last of his serialism books is really worth getting hold of, it contains much autobiography and really makes you stop and think. It is called “Intrusion?” (complete with question mark).
    You can read some of the latest discoveries about him at

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Guy,

    Thanks for stopping by….

    Wow, your site has a lot of information about Dunne. It sounds like you’ve spent some time looking at the Science Museum’s archive. (I assume you have from the detail you provide.)

    And you’re working on a biography! I wish you well with it. I will check at your site from time to time for news….

    On the Zanonia seed, I could never find much mention or description of whatever plant this belongs to, to understand the inspiration (or the dissing).


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