Harry Beck, was an English technical draftsman best known for creating the present London Underground Tube map in 1931. Beck drew up the diagram in his spare time while working as an engineering draftsman at the London Underground Signals Office. London Underground was initially sceptical of Beck's radical proposal, an uncommissioned spare-time project, but tentatively introduced it to the public in a small pamphlet in 1933. It was immediately popular, and the Underground has used topological maps to illustrate the network ever since.
Prior to the Beck diagram, the various underground lines had been laid out geographically, often superimposed over the roadway of a city map. This meant the centrally located stations were shown very close together and the out-of-town stations spaced far apart. From around 1909 a new type of 'map' appeared inside the train cars; it was a non-geographic linear diagram, in most cases a simple straight horizontal line, which equalized the distances between stations. By the late 1920s most Underground lines and some mainline (especially LNER) services displayed these, many of which had been drawn by George Dow. Some writers and broadcasters have speculated that Dow's maps in-part inspired Beck's work. The geographical-based map, used immediately prior to Beck, in 1932, was produced by the underground map designer for the period 1926-1932, F. H. Stingemore. It was Stingemore's idea to slightly expand the central area of the map for ease of reading.
It was clearly Beck who had the idea of creating a full system map in colour though. He believed that passengers riding the Underground were not too bothered about geographical accuracy, and were more interested in how to get from one station to another and where to change trains. Thus Beck drew his famous diagram, which looked more like and indeed was based upon the concept of an electrical schematic than a true map, on which all the stations were more-or-less equally spaced. Beck first submitted his idea to Frank Pick of London Underground in 1931, but it was considered too radical because it didn't show distances relative from any one station to the others. The design was therefore rejected by the Publicity department at first, but the designer persisted. So, after a successful trial of 500 copies in 1932, distributed via a select few stations, the map was given its first full publication in 1933 (700,000 copies). The positive reaction from customers proved it was a sound design, and a large reprint was required after only one month.
It is suggested by Degani (2013) that one of the configuration techniques employed by Beck was that of an "underlying grid". In some cases the vertical and horizontal grid units are equalised, but on the whole the grid is rectilinear. The result is a "relaxed grid ... which has a certain rhythm and charm - somewhat similar to the grid used by modern artists (e.g. Piet Mondrian's painting Composition With Yellow, Blue and Red, 1937-42.)"
The map after Beck
Beck continued to update the Tube map regularly on a freelance basis, but the later Victoria Line was added in 1960 by Publicity Officer Harold Hutchison, much to Beck's shock and dismay. Subsequently, many other changes were also introduced to the map without Beck's approval, and his name no longer featured at the bottom of the map.
Beck struggled furiously to regain control of the map, through a prolonged legal dispute that eventually became harmful to his wife's mental health. In 1965 he eventually gave up the legal battle "bitter and betrayed by the very organisation he had helped, so admirably, to promote." Responsibility for the map was eventually given to a third designer, Paul Garbutt. Garbutt changed the style of the map to look more like Beck's maps of the 1930s, and also introduced the "vacuum flask" shape for the Circle Line. Although Beck preferred this version to Hutchison's, he wasn't completely satisfied. He started to make a new map, based on both his earlier works and Garbutt's ideas. When this version was also rejected despite its simplicity and ease-of-reading, Beck realised that London Transport would never publish another map in his hand. Nevertheless, he continued to make sketches and drawings for the map until his death in the 1970s.
In 1997, Beck's importance was posthumously recognised, and currently (2013) the statement 'This diagram is an evolution of the original design conceived in 1931 by Harry Beck' is printed on every London Underground map.
A physical anomaly is that the City Branch of the Northern Line actually passes to the west of Mornington Crescent on the West End Branch; Beck's original map showed this correctly, but later versions show the City Branch to the east of Mornington Crescent.
In 1938 he produced a diagram of the entire rail system of the London region (as far as St Albans in the north, Ongar in the north east, Romford in the east, Bromley in the south east, Mitcham in the south, Hinchley Wood in the south west, Ashford in the west, and Tring in the north west). It included both the Underground and mainlines. It was not published at the time but was seen in Ken Garland's book, first published in 1994; it took until 1973 until any official attempt was made to replicate a rail diagram for the entire London region.
Beck produced at least two versions of a diagram for the Paris Métro. The project, which Beck was never commissioned to do, may have been begun, according to Ken Garland, as early as before the start of World War II. A version dating from approximately 1946 is published in Garland's book. His second version is published for the first time in Mark Ovenden's book about the Paris Métro and is on display at the London Transport Museum.
According to some accounts, Beck was never formally commissioned to develop his initial idea and worked on the map only in his spare time. He was thus never actually paid for the map. Other sources report that he was paid a fee of five or ten guineas. In 1947, when he was not fully employed (having left London Transport) he began teaching typography and colour design at the London School of Printing and Kindred Trades.
After long failing to acknowledge Beck's importance as the original designer of the Tube map, London Regional Transport finally created the Beck gallery at the London Transport Museum in the early 1990s, where his works are displayed. A commemorative plaque was installed up at Finchley Central tube station. Beck's home at 60 Courthouse Road, Finchley was marked with a plaque by the Finchley Society in 2003. Since 2001 Transport for London has also started to credit Beck for the original idea on the modern Tube maps.
In March 2006 viewers of BBC2's The Culture Show and visitors to London's Design Museum voted Harry Beck's Tube map as their second-favourite British design of the 20th century in the Great British Design Quest. The winner was Concorde.
In January 2009 the Royal Mail issued a set of postage stamps celebrating British design classics, among them was the contemporary version of the London Underground diagram.
In March 2013 a blue plaque was unveiled on the house where Beck was born, in Wesley Road in Leyton, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Tube map.
Beck's idea has been emulated by subway, bus and transit companies around the world and many urban rail and metro maps use his principles. He was featured on a BBC2 series called Map Man in 2004.