Edward Johnston, the man who designed London

An extract from Edward Johnston's "Writing & Illuminating & Lettering". Image: D&B Books.

Can you name the British designer and artist whose work is seen by millions of Londoners each day? Whose designs have become a visual byword for the city itself? Whose work is beautiful yet entirely functional? 

You wouldn't be alone if you didn't say Edward Johnston. A master calligrapher, typographer and scholar of medieval manuscripts and the Roman letter form, he was a strange choice even at the time to create a uniform look for the fledgling London Underground system. Ensconced in his ramshackle and overflowing house near the Sussex Downs, furiously procrastinating over his latest commission, he was a million years away from the creative agencies and think-tanks associated with modern branding exercises.

Johnston at work. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Chosen he was though – by Frank Pick, publicity officer and pioneer of transport identity, on the strong recommendation of Johnston's former pupil Eric Gill. Johnston had taught for many years at the Central School (later Central St Martins) and The Royal School of Art. He inspired awe and not just a little creative genius in the pupils who passed through his classrooms. 

Pick wanted a London Underground typeface that was bold and clear enough to be read from a distance, and distinctive enough to not be confused with the clamour of competing advertisements. Drawing on his deep love of Roman lettering, which had graced temples and tablets perfectly legibly for thousands of years, Johnston withdrew to his study to procrastinate furiously. 

What emerged, eventually, was the font of the London Underground – Johnston Sans. Not only that, but Johnston had also designed the red circle and blue line roundel that graces every Tube stop sign and tourist tea towel since. 

Johnston designed the font not only to be legible; he also designed the lettering so that signwriters could easily and quickly copy and paint them across the network. 

An extract from  Edward Johnston's "Writing & Illuminating & Lettering". Image: D&B Books.

That was exactly one hundred years ago this year – and, apart from a couple of minor alterations, Johnston Sans has remained the font of the Underground for all that time and doubtless another century to come. Combined with the roundel, the two are arguably the first and most successful attempt at a city to brand itself.

Look upwards at the entrance to Edgware Road (H&C) and you can see remnants of Johnston's original font work. It can still be found on the network if you know where to look – and when you see it, you'll know it. So let's hear three cheers for Edward Johnston, the man who designed the way London feels. And if not now, there's always 2116.

David Dunn is the founder of D&B Books, publisher of Edward Johnston's "Writing & Illuminating & Lettering".



The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.

“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.