London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

The London Underground Map

27/05/2002, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 15040 votes

It is probably the most influential piece of urban cartography known to mankind. To also call the London Underground route map revolutionary is an understatement because it allowed succeeding generations to view their environs in a radically different manner.

Harry Beck, a draftsman with London Underground, designed the map that has since become a classic of modern design back in the early 1930s in his spare time. Since then mass transit maps around the world have followed the simple and strikingly understandable layout that Beck based on the schematic for an electronic circuit.

From MARTA in Atlanta, Georgia, to the METRO in Washington, D.C., New York City’s subway and the Paris Metro as well as the mass transit system in Montreal; all of them are based on Beck’s template for the underground railway system in London. Other cities whose mass transit maps are modelled on Becks include Sydney, Australia and St. Petersburg.

This is quite a compliment for map that Beck designed in his spare time. With the exception of adding new lines for the London Underground and a few other changes today’s map of the Underground is unchanged from Beck’s original design.

The first tunnel of what would become the London Underground was opened in 1863 and by the 1900s the system had become complicated enough to require a map for patrons using it.

The original tube maps, first introduced in 1908, took a more traditional approach to showing the various lines and the routes they followed. The result however was confusing and hard to understand- for one reason, since the map was to scale the central section of London was almost indecipherable. A 1909 edition of Punch makes fun of the complexity of an underground map with a well-dressed man telling a couple that the chart of the underground routes is really "simple”.

Trying to place on overlay of underground lines on a geographical or street map of a city had only lead to a map that was difficult to read at best and misleading at worst. Anyone who has ever built an electronic kit can imagine the problem; it is much easier building a short-wave radio or a stereo receiver using a schematic than a three-dimensional drawing, where it might be hard to see that particular piece of wire that snakes around the corner and behind the chassis. In one case you might not solder the right connection; in the other you might make the right connection between trains.

Beck’s solution was an elegant one that would ensure the efficient movement of people. The result was analogous to building that electronic kit: strip away all geographical reference save one, the Thames River, and collapse the map from three dimensions down to two; in effect a schematic of the London Underground which would provide only the information that a passenger on the tube would need in order to complete his journey. In addition Beck’s map was not drawn to scale which meant that the more closely packed tube stops of the central section of London could be spread out on the map, thus making it easier to read.

The map uses only vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines and stations are shown as dots while interchanges are shown as circles. Each line is a different colour - for example the Piccadilly line is dark blue, while the Northern line is black and the Bakerloo line is a light brown.

The upshot of all of this is that the map is very easy to use; all you need know is the line on which you’ll be travelling and your direction of travel-given there are only two directions on each line, it’s pretty hard to make a mistake.

From the first the map was a success and over the years Harry Beck would continue to refine his map- the last Beck map used by London Underground was the 1960 one. After that others would design the yearly updates of the underground map though his original design is still the inspiration for today’s underground map which has undergone yearly revision as new lines and stations have been added - for example originally there were eight lines where now there are fourteen lines with plans for even further expansion.

Sadly however Harry Beck was not to make much money for drawing a map that would be copied around the world. Shortly before his death in 1974 London Underground would deny Beck any royalties for his design.

Today the London Underground map is considered a classic of modern design and an inspiration for other maps including ones showing airlines routes. In the late 1990s a book on the history of Beck’s underground map was published and the BBC even devoted a program - as it had done with another classic of British design, the AGA cooker - to the map whose influence has reached around the world.


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Re: The London Underground Map

By Phil Pacey Hobart Tasmania Australia 08/06/2002, (Rating: 2.9 from 14172 votes)

Recently on our first visit to London we found the London underground map excellent and very easy to use. It only took us oldies a day or two to sort it out while our 22 year old daughter had mastered it in a couple of hours. We can't wait to get back to have another go. Phil Pacey.

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Re: The London Underground Map

By Teresa L. from Poland 11/06/2002, (Rating: 2.9 from 14085 votes)

I found The London Tube Map excellnt and very easy to use. I can't imagine going by Underground from the beginning without it!

I was suprised too, when I realised that after only few days I could travel without this piece of paper!
Because of The London Underground Map I understood how The Tube worked very quickly!

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