London Underground Map Myths

Henry Beck was the first designer to show an entire network using diagrammatic principles

Henry Beck's inspiration might have been more mundane than first supposed, but Underground car line diagrams are mere fragments of the network. Could Henry Beck have been the first person ever to show an entire rail network diagrammatically? Not really. It depends how a diagrammatic map is defined. From 1924 we have the British Empire Exhibition map, designed for Thomas Cook be Kennedy North:

Look at how the geography has been completely distorted, with a perfect Circle Line and other lines radiating into it and/or heading for Wembley. Not only this, but the lines are colour coded. For those who want straight lines on their diagrammatic maps, here is one designed by George Dow for the LNER in 1929, showing the entire Great Northern suburban network:

[From the Andrew Dow Collection.]

Part of the distortion of history associated with this myth comes from the fact that in the 1920s, London Transport was producing system maps that were poorly designed, even reactionary compared with contemporary developments. When comparing Beck's designs with his LT predecessors, their conservatism exaggerates the step forward that Henry Beck made. His pre-Second World War designs for London transport were extremely good - bad London Underground maps are very easy to design. However, to look at Beck's work just in the context of London Transport neglects the advances being made in graphic design elsewhere. Once we see these, it seems that Beck's work was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. He took principles that were being used by other people, and made them work for the first time for the entire London Underground network. No mean feat, but not an extraordinary one.

Last updated 22/08/07