1933 London Underground Map

First published May 30th, 2006

"If you're going underground, why bother about geography? It's not so important. Connections are the thing." (Owen Massey)

Part of Harry Beck's 1933 map (left) and part of 2004 map (right)

One of the classics of 20th century design is the London Underground map designed in 1931 by unemployed electrical draftsman Harry Beck. Instead of a geographically accurate map, he produced a purely representational diagram with no surface detail except the stations and a stylised River Thames. With its out-of-scale distances it was initially rejected by the Underground's publicity department as "too revolutionary", but a year later they changed their minds and a free pocket edition was published in 1933.

Harry Beck's design - originally sketched out in a school exercise book before being converted into final artwork - has undergone constant adjustment to accomodate new lines and stations and to add clarity improvements. Beck himself had begun to tinker with it for the 1936 version but the illustration above shows how his graphic concept remains essentially unchanged 70 years on. Its success was assured to a great degree by the fact that the tube-travelling public took to it straightaway, appreciating its clarity and the way it gave an illusion of order to the otherwise chaotic city of London.

As the London Underground developed, so Harry Beck continued to develop the map. He had to contend with the increasing complexity of the network whilst maintaining its clarity in diagrammatic form - a process he undertook with a great deal of personal effort and loving attention to detail for thirty years. He was known to have a sharp sense of humour and once described his map as "The Underground straight eight all-electric skit-set circuit diagram."

Beck (pictured left in 1965) produced his last design for the London Undergound map in 1964. That his original design has been handed down so faithfully is due both to public recognition and to continuous and skillful nurturing by Tim Demuth of London Transport's publicity department (their corporate morons of political correctness have introduced the stupid name of 'Transport for London'). There are now fourteen tube lines instead of the original eight, and the map is managed on an Apple Mac. Its digitisation makes it easier for Demuth to make revisions in a manner consistent with the diagram's iconic purity.

The Underground map is an important marketing asset for London Transport. It's a nice earner, not only as a map but also in souvenir form on a large range of goods from aprons to keyrings to soap. The map is so celebrated that there are many excellent websites devoted to it. The obvious thing to do is therefore to round off with reference to a few of the best.

The London Underground map on the web

On London Underground's own Tube maps page you can download and print, or just view online, the "famous" Tube map. They also have versions showing disabled access and links to trains and trams.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, the London Underground, with not only a geographically accurate version of the Underground map but information about the history of the London Underground, its future, practical help for Tube travellers, information about the different lines, and related links.

Alternative Tube maps from Simon Clarke, who over the last few years has researched and developed a number of 'alternative' Tube maps - some of which have proved very popular [Simon's site is currently under reconstruction].

A comprehensive catalogue of Tube maps: the The London Tube map archive from 1908, from James Bow, a blogger from Canada.

The London Weblog Directory - a directory of weblogs called London Bloggers written by people who live or work in London, organised geographically by the London Tube map. There were 2037 registered London weblogs at the time of writing.

Last but absolutely not least, Owen Massey's "Mapper's delight" (see link at the top of this page) - mostly a page of fascinating links related to London Underground (pedantically referred-to as) 'diagrams'.

River Thames deleted from map in 2009

[Added in September, 2009]

In a botched attempt to gain public support by taking useful features off the contemporary London Tube map, Transport for London (TfL) deleted the river in September 2009, to the consternation of Boris Johnson, the Lord Mayor, who ordered it to be restored forthwith. Accordingly, the next scheduled revision will diagrammatically illustrate the proud River Thames once again. TfL, it seems, was concerned that the Tube map was "becoming too cluttered to be useful" which of course rather misses the point after over 75 years.

Page last modified: December 24, 2014

Patrick Elsewhere

The art of Françoise Taylor:
paintings & drawings by my mother, vécue 1920-2007