Iconic British Things Part 4: The London Underground Map

Today we are going to be doffing our caps to a designer who truly changed the way people see the world, and made London a less confusing place into the bargain.

His name was Harry Beck, and he was an engineering draftsman for London Underground in the 1920s. He had noticed that there was a problem with the maps people were using to navigate the network, not least because there wasn’t one map with all of the trains on it. This was partly a political consideration – different companies ran different lines – and partly one of cartography. A lot of London tube stations are in very close proximity, so overlaying all the different lines on a geographic map (i.e. one which shows London to scale, as seen from above) made for a confusing read.

Harry took it upon himself, in his spare time, to design a map which displayed all of the underground network in linear form, putting more space around the crowded areas, and shortening the distances between the suburban stations. He also gave each tube line its own vivid color, to further prevent confusion. He presented it to London Underground in 1931, to a very skeptical response. They felt passengers would always want some idea of the distances involved between stations, and Harry argued that they did (and do) not.

So a test pressing of the map was made in 1932. 500 copies were sent out, and these met with such unanimous approval that the map went into production properly in 1933, with 700,000 copies being printed. These had all gone after just one month.

The map continues to this day as the clearest possible representation of the London tube network, although Harry himself was often frustrated in his dealings with London Underground, particularly after they began altering it without consulting him first. The current map, while based entirely on his idea, has been redesigned several times. Nevertheless, it’s his inspiration which you can see in train maps all over the world.

And it has made a mark in other areas too. In 1992 the artist Simon Patterson made The Great Bear, a representation of the tube map in which the names of stations had been changed to (among other things) musicians, philosophers, explorers and film actors. This then unleashed a wave of alternate maps, including the Guardian’s map of modern music, and it’s a trend which shows no sign of slowing, especially in this infographics age. Why, only this week there was a map made using the kind of inflammatory topics beloved of the British middle-brow tabloid, the Daily Mail.

And yes, naturally there’s a Doctor Who version.

What’s your favorite iconic British thing? Tell us here:

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2. He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage. Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic
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