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.

 
 
 
 

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