Harry Beck - Inventor of the London Underground Tube Map

by KathleenDuffy

This year, 2013, the London Underground celebrates its 150th anniversary. Time to pay tribute to Harry Beck who invented the iconic, beautifully simple, Underground Map.

The London Underground Map is a global icon of graphic design. Yet its creator, engineer Harry Beck, spent years refining his creation with little financial reward.

Attempts to design an Underground Map began as early as 1908. As London expanded this endeavour became more difficult. Bearing in mind that London is an amalgamation of villages, not a simple grid or radial city like New York or Paris, creating a functional map was challenging.

Harry Beck was painstaking in his endeavours to provide London Tube passengers with a map of the Underground which would make it easy for them, whether regular users or strangers to the city, to get to their destinations with ease.

Modern Map of London Underground
Modern Map of London Underground

The map pictured above is the modern tube map, familiar to all who travel on the London Underground.   But it was a long and tortuous journey to reach such an iconic global design.

To begin with, cartographers created geographical representations of London for early Underground maps. This meant that they wanted to re-create the distances and directions above ground to the same extent below ground.  

A sense of relative distance and accurate direction were considered, with few exceptions, essential.

Tube Map 1908
Tube Map 1908

Additionally, London's landmarks were often included. So, whilst the suburbs were far apart, central London was represented as highly constricted with stations close together, confusing passengers.

By 1925 some difficulties were resolved, particularly by F. H. Stingemore's design. Here, outlying suburbs were compressed and surface detail eliminated, but central constriction remained problematic.

Fred Stingemore's Map of the London Underground
Fred Stingemore's Map of the London Underground

Harry Beck's Diagram of the London Underground


In 1931 Harry Beck, a 29-year-old unemployed engineering draughtsman, produced his first sketch of the Diagram which would become the well-loved map of the London Underground.

Having been made redundant from the Underground Group, Beck nevertheless made a presentation visual from this initial sketch and, in 1931 presented it to their Publicity Department. It was rejected as too 'revolutionary'.

Harry Beck
Harry Beck
Kind Permission of Ken Garland

Beck was re-employed by the Underground Group in 1932 and re-presented his Diagram. To his delight it was accepted and in January 1933 a first edition folding card of 750,000 was printed. It was an instant success, and big business for the new controlling authority, London Passenger Transport Board.

Beck was paid a meagre £10.50 for the design and artwork of the Diagram and a mere £5.25 for the subsequent poster artwork.


Significance of Beck's London Underground Diagram


Important features of Harry Beck's London Underground diagram are:

  • simplification  of route lines to verticals, horizontals or diagonals;
  • expansion of central London area;
  • like an electrical circuit diagram, it was schematic, not geographical (see illustration below)
  • elimination  of all surface detail except the Thames.

Beck recognised that travellers underground have one aim - to get from one place to another. The traveller's mindset is restricted to this singular necessity. The commuter needs a diagram, not a traditional map, to reflect this need.

Beck's Diagram minimises the anxiety caused by underground travel.

One surface feature was incorporated into Beck's Diagram - the River Thames. Beck's biographer, Ken Garland, notes that in an informal questionnaire taken in 1968, all Tube travellers found the inclusion of the Thames a useful feature.

It remains a reassuring, organic reminder of life above ground.

A Typical Electrical Circuit Diagram

The Concept was an Inspiration for Beck's London Tube Map
Electronic Circuit Diagram
Commemorative Plaque To Harry Beck at Finchley tube Station
Commemorative Plaque To Harry Beck at Finchley tube Station

Although retained by the London Passenger Transport Board, Beck remained a 'temp' draughtsman until 1937. This meant he was in the unfortunate position of being both freelancer and employee. His designer status was ambiguous and he was constantly defending his creation against badly conceived alterations. The copyright was the Board's, but Beck believed he held the right to oversee changes.

Beck left London Transport in 1947 to teach at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts. He was happy there, yet devastated by his exclusion from the redesign of his Diagram to incorporate the Victoria Line. It was a bitter blow.

Today Harry Beck's design is recognised as a work of graphic genius.


Island of Sodar Map based on Harry Beck's style
Island of Sodar Map based on Harry Beck's style

The following features show how Harry Beck's Underground Map has become part of London's culture:

  • adopted  by most global transport systems;
  • constantly  upgraded without losing its essential simplicity;
  • 20th  century graphic design phenomenon and artistic icon;
  • produced  in varying formats over 60 million times globally;
  • London  Transport Museum has a Beck gallery;
  • Finchley Underground, Beck's home station, has a commemorative plaque.

Beck's optimistic vision forms the basis of today's Journey Planner, a functional name for a deceptively simple idea by a designer of persistence and integrity.


  • Mr Beck's Underground Map: A History by Ken      Garland (Capital Transport, 1998)


London Underground Tube Map - Related Items on E-Bay

Updated: 07/13/2013, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 05/08/2013

Thanks Rupert. Yes - it's really sad that he made nothing from it. Now you can buy boxer shorts with it on...

RupertTaylor on 05/08/2013

Nicely done Kathleen. I wonder how much has been made off the design by others stealing Beck's design.

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