Map Happenings

Mapping Industry Tidbits, Activity and Musings

12 Map Happenings That Rocked Our World: Part 5

The Dawn of Tube Maps

So the astute readers among you1 will have realized by now that this series of posts on the 12 Map Happenings that Rocked Our World are slowly advancing through history:

  • Part 1 was about The First Map which was probably invented about 45,000 years ago
  • Part 2 was about The Birth of Coordinates, specifically latitude and longitude, which happened in about 245BC
  • Part 3 was about the invention of Road Maps by the Romans somewhere around 20BC
  • Part 4 was about The Epic Quest for Longitude and how it came to be measurable at sea in 1759

Today we move forward yet again, this time to the year 1933 and the invention of the ’Tube Map’. 

First of all through, what the hell is a ‘Tube’? 

Well, if you’re not familiar, please let me enlighten you. 

The Tube refers to the London Underground, which in 2023 is celebrating its 160th anniversary. 

‘Love the Tube’ Roundel – Celebrating the 160th Year of the London Underground
Credit: Transport for London

The first line opened on 10th January 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon Street. Initially the trains were powered by steam locomotives that hauled wooden carriages. It wasn’t until 1890 until the first deep level electric line was opened:

The first electric London Underground train in 1890
London Electric Underground Train in 1890 — Credit: Wikimedia

The London Underground first became known as the ’Tube’ in 1900 when the then Prince of Wales, Prince Albert Edward (later Edward VII), opened the Central London Railway from Shepherd’s Bush to Bank. This line was nicknamed the ‘Twopenny Tube’2,3.

Many maps of the Tube were created, the first being in 1908:

London Underground Map from 1908
London Underground Map from 1908 — Credit: Darien Graham-Smith

It wasn’t until 1949 that the Tube Map that that we all know and love truly came into being4.

The map was created by one Henry Charles Beck (4 June 1902 – 18 September 1974), a.k.a. Harry Beck.

Beck’s map was first published in 1933:

Beck’s First Work, Published in 1933

But It wasn’t until 1949 that Beck was completely satisfied with the the design:

Harry Beck's Masterpiece - Map of the London Underground in 1949
Harry Beck’s Favorite Creation from 1949 — Credit: Darien Graham-Smith
Harry Beck (1902-74) — Credit: Wikimedia

Beck had created something of beauty and it was truly a game changer: eliminating all extraneous information — even topography — to create the most simple and easy-to-understand map you could possibly achieve. Jony Ive would have been proud.

The history of how this map came to be and Beck’s trials and tribulations to get it approved is a story that has been told many times and, I hasten to add, with great comedic wit and wisdom. I could never come close to doing these prior works justice. Instead please let me point you to some delightful muniments worthy of your time:

One of my favorites is by Darien Graham-Smith who wrote about the History of the Tube Map in his article for the Londonist. In this article you will see the progression from the messiness of the pre-Beck maps to Beck’s 1949 masterpiece.

Another of my favorite history lessons is given by the amazing Jay Foreman who created two delightful 10 minute videos. They are full of acerbic British wit and most definitely a ‘must watch’:

The Tube Map nearly looked very different — Credit: Jay Foreman

What went wrong with the Tube Map? — Credit: Jay Foreman

So how much did Beck’s map influence the rest of the world? You only have to take a look at the official subway maps from around the globe to see:

Even the city of Venice has adopted Beck’s style for its official maps of Venice’s water taxi network:

Map of Venice Water Taxi Network
Venice Water Taxi Network — Credit: Actv

Now while I prattle on about Harry Beck, I’m sure the map purists among you are probably whinging5 that the London Tube Map is not a map, it’s a schematic. Well in the sense that the topography was trounced by topology that may strictly be the case. But the Tube Map accomplished what so many of today’s ‘maps’ fail to do today — distilling the horrible complexity of the real world into the atomic essence of the information you really need. And, let’s not forget, they still depict space, albeit without the equal scale of a traditional map.

But where is it all going?

Well there is one land yet to be conquered — that fair city of the Big Apple, which so far has steadfastly refused to adopt Beck’s non-topographic mantra:

Map of New York City Subway
New York City Subway Map — Credit: MTA

And, I’m sorry to say that since Beck’s passing the London Tube Map itself has regressed. Somehow the attractive simplicity of Beck’s finest work in 1949 has now been lost to complexity and incoherence:

Map of London Underground - Tube Map - 2023
London Tube Map in 2023 — Credit: Transport for London

However, in my research I did come across one bright light. This is a map of the roads of the Roman Empire, in what is now a very familiar form:

Map of Roman Roads in the Style of a Transit Map
Roman Roads in the Transit Map Form — Credit: Sasha

So, perhaps it is the Romans we should thank after all? 😉


1 By suffering through my blogs you have to be somewhat astute, or at the very least, patient and tenacious

2 Two things here:

  • ‘Twopenny’ perhaps unsurprisingly means two pence. This was the initial cost of a ticket on this line
  • To those unfamiliar with proper British pronunciation, ‘twopence’ is actually pronounced ’tuppence’ not ‘two pence’

3 The term ‘Tube’ could also have come from the fact that, well, the tube looks very much like a ‘tube’. It could also have come from the concept of London’s Victorian Hyperloop, run by the London Pneumatic Despatch Company between 1863 and 1874.

A London Tube train emerging from the Tube — Credit: Wikimedia

4 You could argue that Beck’s first map actually dated from his 1931 sketch, drawn in pencil and colored ink on squared paper in his exercise book:

Sketch for a new diagrammatic map of the London Underground network by Henry C. Beck in 1931
Sketch for a new diagrammatic map of the London Underground network by Henry C. Beck in 1931
Credit: Transport for London and the Victoria & Albert Museum Collection

5 ‘Whinging’ — pronounced ‘winge-ing’ (like hinge-ing) — is British for whining in a particularly irritating way. In other words, it’s much worse than simply whining. 

References and Acknowledgments:

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