London Underground Map Myths

Henry Beck invented colour-coding/Henry Beck himself chose the colours on the Underground map

This isn't a very prevalent myth, but a recent BBC programme did spend an excruciating five minutes with a florist, discussing the emotional significance of Beck's choice of colours, so let's nip this one in the bud (sorry) before it becomes an urban myth too.

An early map with colour coding (1911), also, as it happens, with an enlarged centre and straightening of the lines

The London Underground network has made use of colour-coding more than any other transport network in the world. The first official true colour-coded maps (in which colour was used to designate service groups rather than ownership) appeared towards the end of the first decade of the 20th Century, almost certainly as a result of a 1907 agreement reached between companies to market and ticket the 'Underground' railways as a unified whole. There have been changes since then (and a hiatus due to First World War printing restrictions), but overall the colour-stability of the London Underground is unique and remarkable when compared with other networks. Witness:

So, Beck had at the very most four line colours that he could have influenced. There would have been nothing to stop him making suggestions, but these would have had to have been agreed by all sorts of other people, first within the Publicity Office itself, responsible for maps, then within the Railway Operations Department, responsible for car line diagrams, and then the Signalling Department, responsible for station signage. For those who have searched the London Transport Archives, one recurring feature of inter-departmental communications is that the various departments always objected to others taking decisions on their behalf, and this would have included line colours. Use of line colours as a station/train navigation aide seems to have developed from the mid 1930s.

Where does this leave us? Changes in line colour would have been endlessly debated, with already-used colours, limitations in technology, and human colour discrimination ability constraining any proposed changes. Henry Beck might have made a useful contribution to the selection process, or he might not. Nothing stronger than this can be concluded.

Last updated 30/11/07