The man who put London on the map

The London Underground map
A London Underground Route Planner - subsequent diagrams have followed the principle's of Beck's original 1933 diagram

I feel like a bit of a writing fraud at the moment as I’m not actually doing any writing. My fiction has fallen by the wayside (again – that poor neglected novel) and I’ve recently finished a project for Summersdale, which has now gone for editing. So, I’m having a bit of an interlude.

********** Cue interlude music **********

Instead, I’ve been deep in research for a new project; a non-fiction history title. To say I’m excited about this is an understatement. We’re talking ‘tick-off-the-bucket-list,’ levels of excitement. Just in case I’m not making myself clear – I’M REALLY EXCITED.

My new WIP (not the fiction WIP, that’s old news now…what fiction WIP?) charts the history of the London Underground map. Or to be more precise, the London Underground diagram. This distinction is important because it isn’t really a map at all in the cartographic sense. It contains no cartographic features, except for old man Thames. It was stripped of its roads, landmarks and buildings back in 1931, to the horror of the Publicity Department of London Underground, who decided it was far too “revolutionary” and passengers wouldn’t understand it.

I should explain here that London Underground hadn’t actually commissioned a new map. A plucky young engineering draughtsman called Henry Beck had taken it upon himself to design a new ‘map’ in his own time.

A blue plaque for Harry Beck
Harry Beck - diagram designer extraordinaire

Yes - so convinced was he of the awfulness of the previous maps, that he decided he could do a better job. And frankly, thank god he did. The maps of the previous decades had attempted to superimpose the Underground lines on top of a geographical map of London, which compromised legibility to such an extent as to make the whole thing practically unusable. To make matters worse, the Underground was run by private Railway companies, until it was unified in 1933, all of whom produced their own maps showing their own lines. Sometimes they deigned to include others but in fainter lines so as not to draw attention away from their own railways (yes, they were that childish).

Representation of the Underground in a way that was legible and usable was problematic. For a start, the central area was a congestion of close running lines, which made distinguishing between them on paper all but impossible. Secondly, the Underground ran some fifty miles out into the countryside to far-flung ‘ere-be-dragons’ type places like Uxbridge and Harrow – ensuring these were also included on the same diagram without the diagram running to epic proportions (or worse, shrinking the middle so they would fit on) was also an issue. Beck’s solution was beautiful in its simplicity. Remove any indicator of scale or distance (i.e take off any geographical and topographical features), enlarge the central area and condense the outlying stations. That is the diagram in a nutshell. Was trickery employed? Perhaps a little. By changing the distances and proportions, the unsuspecting passenger can be forgiven for thinking some parts of the Underground are closer or further away than they actually are. Does it really matter? Not when you’re hurtling through a tunnel and you lose all sense of time and direction anyway.

London Underground Roundel
The famous London Underground roundel, designed by Edward Johnston

Back to the story - armed with his new and improved version of the ‘map,’ Beck approached the Publicity Department in 1931, where the following scene may or may not have taken place….*

A corner office somewhere high up in Underground Group HQ, 55 Broadway, London. A grey light spills through the window as the dregs of the day recede into early evening. The muffled click-clack of a typewriter can be heard from the adjoining room. The sound of a door closing and footsteps on the floor above can be heard. A cigarette glows in an ashtray. Petty official is seated behind a desk. Beck is standing in front of him looking increasingly anxious.

Petty official: “Word has it you’ve redesigned the map, Beck. Is this true?”

Petty official takes a drag on his cigarette.

Beck: “Yes, Sir. In my own time, Sir.”

Petty official: “Well, hand it over then.”

Beck hands the petty official his masterpiece, who looks at it aghast. The ash from the cigarette, still between his fingers, drops onto the floor. Beck clears his throat and tugs at his tie.

Petty official: “Good God man, you’ve removed all the roads and topography. Whatever possessed you to do that?”

Beck swallows audibly.

Beck: “The passengers need to know how to get from one station to another. They don’t need to know what’s going on above them-”

Petty official interrupts: “-And look here (he points), you’ve made this line (he gasps) diagonal.

Beck: “Yes. So that its clear which line is which, and what direction it goes in.”

Petty official: “And you’ve made the lines straight and the corners a 45-degree angle? Are you mad?”

Beck: “No, Sir. I was trying to consider what would be the easiest layout the passengers would understand. I wanted to tidy it up for the benefit of the users.”

Petty official laughs: “Ha ha ha ha. Ahem” (he collects himself) “Well it’s a good attempt but I’m afraid you’ve got that completely wrong, old chap. I’ll tell you what the passengers need. They need an enormous map that shows every line and where it goes in a fifty-mile radius of London, regardless of how messy and illegible it is. They also need to know every road and landmark they are going under, just because it might be useful, despite the fact they won’t actually be able to see any of it and neither do they care. Geographical accuracy is paramount, even though none of that matters a jot when you’re sitting in a carriage in the dark. You mark my words, this is far too revolutionary (he waves Beck’s diagram around) They’re a simple breed, passengers, and they just won’t understand it. Run along now, there’s a good chap.”

Beck: “Yes, Sir. Thank you for your time.”

Petty official hands back the diagram, picks up his telephone and dials a number. Beck exits the office. As he closes the door, he can hear the petty official on his telephone.

Petty official: “Yes! DIAGONAL! Well, I soon put him straight…oh! Put him straight! Ha ha ha ha!”

Petty official laughs heartily at his own joke.

Suffice to say the Publicity Department was wrong. Two years later, in 1933, the Underground decided to give Beck a chance, and the transport-riding public a bit of credit. The diagram was finally printed, to huge and everlasting success. The rest is history.

*This scene never took place. It is a total work of fiction. I’m sure the Underground group’s Publicity Department were an incredibly approachable and egalitarian department in 1930’s capitalist London…

Trial of the first Underground line
Trial of the first Underground line 1863

The story of the Underground is fascinating. It’s industrial heritage on steroids – a living, breathing, functional piece of transport history that sees 2 billion passengers a year and covers almost 250 miles. Its story has plenty of drama - from financial disasters to warring Chief Executives, collapsed tunnels to terrorism. It even has an American conman, whose slightly dubious business methods ended up securing the future of the scheme. But at the heart of it all, is the diagram – the key that unlocked the Underground (or ‘Tube’) to the masses – a diagram that is still going strong almost ninety years later.

I can’t wait to share it all with you.

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