Harry Beck

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Two older versions of Underground maps:

The simplified topological Tube map invented by Beck


Henry C. Beck (1903–1974), known as Harry Beck, was a graphic designer, best known for creating the present London Underground Tube map in 1933. In 1947, when he was not fully employed (having left London Transport) he began teaching typographics and colour design at the London School of Printing and Kindred Trades.



London Underground map

Beck drew up the diagram in his spare time while working as an engineering draughtsman at the London Underground Signals Office.

Prior to the Beck diagram, the various underground lines had been laid out geographically, often superimposed on a road map. This had the feature that centrally located stations were very close together, and the out of town stations were spaced apart. From around 1908 a new type of 'map' appeared inside the train cars; it was a non-geographic linear diagram, in most cases a simple straight horizontal line, which equalized the distances between stations. By the late 1920s most Underground lines and some mainline (especially LNER) services displayed these, many of which had been drawn by George Dow. Some writers have postulated that these in part inspired Beck.[1]

But it was clearly Beck who had the idea of creating a full system map in colour. He believed that passengers riding the trains weren't too bothered about the geographical accuracy, but were more interested in how to get from one station to another, and where to change. Thus he drew his famous diagram, looking more like an electrical schematic than a true map, on which all the stations were more or less equally spaced.

The diagram does have a few anomalies. For example, checking the diagram to see how to get from Bank to Mansion House, the casual traveller would take the Central Line to Liverpool Street and change onto the Circle Line to Mansion House (about six stops and one change). A more savvy London Underground user would take the escalator connection to Monument and then the Circle or District Line to Mansion House (two stops and an escalator ride). The really clued-up Londoner would walk the 50 metres (164 ft) between the stations, which could not be figured out from the diagram. In fact, the escalator between Bank and Monument is longer than the distance between Bank and Mansion House.

A similar issues arises with Queensway and Bayswater.

A physical anomaly is that the City Branch of the Northern Line actually passes to the west of Mornington Crescent on the West End branch, though the map shows otherwise.

Beck continued to update the Tube map on a freelance basis, but the future Victoria Line was added in 1960 by the Publicity Officer, Harold Hutchison. Many other changes were also introduced to the map without Beck's approval.

Beck struggled furiously to regain control of the map, but responsibility for the map was eventually given to a third designer, Paul Garbutt. Garbutt changed the style of the map to look more like Beck's maps of the 1930s, and also introduced the "vacuum flask" shape for the Circle Line. Although Beck preferred this version to Hutchison's, he wasn't completely satisfied. He started to make a new map, based on both his earlier works and Garbutt's ideas. When this version too was rejected, despite its simplicity and ease of reading, Beck realized London Transport would never publish any map in his hand. Nevertheless he continued to make sketches and drawings for the map until his death.


After long failing to acknowledge Beck's importance as the original designer of the Tube map, London Regional Transport finally created the Beck gallery at the London Transport Museum in the early 1990s, where his works can be seen. A commemorative plaque was put up at Finchley Central tube station. Beck's home at 60 Courthouse Road, Finchley was marked with a plaque by the Finchley Society in 2003[2] Since 2001 Transport for London has also started to credit Beck for the original idea on the modern Tube maps.

In March 2006, viewers of BBC2's The Culture Show and visitors to London's Design Museum voted Harry Beck's Tube map as their second-favourite British design of the 20th century in the Great British Design Quest. The winner was the Concorde.[3]


Beck's idea has been emulated by subway, bus and transit companies around the world and many urban rail and metro maps use his principles. His creative genius was featured on a BBC2 series called Map Man in 2004.


  1. ^ "Visions of Earth" (July 2008). National Geographic: 30. 
  2. ^ Finchley Society Newsletter June 2003.
  3. ^ [1]

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