Harry Beck: the man who drew London

Beck's blue plaque. Image: Spudgun67/Wikimedia Commons.

Picture yourself as a Londoner in 1908. You’re lost underground somewhere in sweltering heat on the Central Line, but you’ve no idea where you’re going, or how to make your next connection.

Until 1908 the map of the London underground was about as easy to follow as the last couple of months of British politics. Each station was spaced using a life-like scale, causing a dense knot of overlapping dots in the centre, long, sprawling lines into the deep dark north, and barren land across much of the south. Unsurprisingly, the map caused much confusion:

The 1932 London Underground map – the map being used before Harry sorted us out.

Our commutes were revolutionised in the 1930s by one unassuming engineer.  His name was Harry Beck, and he had a dream. A dream about a map that would shape London’s future.

Harry understood Londoners don’t care about geographical accuracy: we just want to navigate the Underground’s mass of overgrown vines as quickly as possible and without having to speak to each other. And Harry gave us the tools we needed, arming us with a cartographical machete. In 1931, he produced possibly the most familiar map on the planet – the London Underground.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Beck’s innovation was that he wasn’t even commissioned to re-design the map. He took it upon himself to re-design the whole of London’s underground network in his spare time, alongside his day job as an engineering draughtsman. And in true British fashion, Harry was typically understated about the inspiration for his creation:

“Looking at an old map of the Underground railways, it occurred to me that it might be possible to tidy it up by straightening the lines, experimenting with diagonals and evening out the distance between stations.”

The Underground initially rejected his proposal, believing it was too radical. “Tidy it up by straightening the lines?” Steady on now pal. “Experimenting with diagonals”? But eventually Beck’s design was approved, and the rest as they say, was history.

Thanks to his smart thinking, the Underground became easier to navigate, and helped improve the way the city transported its rapidly growing population.  I’d wager that over time it also increased the city’s productivity and economy – by making it easier for tourists and workers to get around.

Beck posthumously received a blue plaque in 2013. But can we ever truly repay our debt for this beauty?

At Centre for London we’re on a mission to find London’s next leaders, the future blue plaques of the capital out there taking it upon themselves to improve our city and the lives of Londoners. Nominees have the opportunity to win a speaking spot at this year’s London Conference, an invite-only full day event attended by the capital’s leaders in politics, business and the third sector.

Think you know a rising star who deserves a platform for their ideas, innovation or work in the community? We want to know them too. Send us your nominations on Twitter using #LeadLDN.


You can find out more about the campaign to find London's next leaders here.

 
 
 
 

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.