Harry Beck bigraphy, stories - Design

Harry Beck : biography

4 June 1902 - 18 September 1974

Henry Charles Beck (4 June 1902 Consulted 29 October 2011 – 18 September 1974), known as Harry Beck, was an English engineering 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 — it was an uncommissioned spare-time project — which was tentatively introduced to the public via a small pamphlet in 1933. It was immediately popular, and the Underground has used topological maps to illustrate the network ever since.

London Underground map

Before Beck

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 1908 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.

Beck's concept

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.

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, but responsibility for it 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 1970's.

In 1997, Beck's importance was posthumously recognised, and the name 'H.C. BECK' now appears 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 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.

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