I tend to avoid stuff that is widely covered, especially if I can’t bring anything significantly new or different to the party. But the occasion must be marked. Today it’s exactly 80 years since the “modern” version of London Underground’s tube map was published. It was a foldy pocket version, an item which was common enough to London’s commuters previously and indeed to this day. The big difference was that it was an instant hit with the public and apart from tweaks and updates, it’s essentially still the same map. The most noticeable updates occurred early on in any case: diamond junctions changed to circular; station names changed from the tube line colour to black and from all capitals to mixed case.
Over the past 80 years, millions have relied on Beck’s lovely map to figure out, at a glance, where they need to go. At last his efforts have been properly recognised with an English Heritage blue plaque on the house where he was born, in Leyton. The honours were performed by Sam Mullins, current Director of the London Transport museum. The text of the plaque itself has been set in London Transport’s house typeface: New Johnston*. This has only been thus employed three times previously, for Frank Pick and Lord Ashfield, the two men who shaped the Underground in the first half of the 20C; and Edward Johnston himself, designer of the eponymous face.
Beck worked for London Underground as a draughtsman from 1925, developing his map at home and in his spare time. During this period he liaised with management; initially they responded luke-warmly and with constant demands for changes, most of which Beck disagreed with. The map had its first public airing on 25 March 1933. Under a gentlemen’s agreement, only Beck could adjust of finally approve changes to “his” map, although London Underground breached this on several occasions, until eventually in 1960 Beck gave up the candle and his work on the map came to an end.
Why is Harry Smiling?
Beck’s intransigence over his map gave him a reputation in some quarters of being difficult. But not humourless. Quite the opposite, in fact, as is clear in this happy-chappy portrait photo.
But what’s that in his hands? It is most definitely not the Tube map. It is, rather, a spoof map based on a wiring diagram which was published in the London Underground staff magazine. This possibly gave rise to the theory that Beck’s inspiration for the Tube map was wiring diagrams. So he was happy to take the piss out of his own work, but that was very strictly his exclusive perogative!
* New Johnston is a near-imperceptible recent update of Edward Johnston’s original Johnston Sans.