Harry Beck

Harry Beck

Harry Beck was an eminent twentieth century English technical draftsman. He designed the iconic topological map of London’s Underground subway system (now Tube) and attained recognition posthumously.

On June 04, 1902, in Leyton, London, Harry was born Henry Charles Beck. He was an unlikely cartographic innovator. He began his career as an engineering draughtsman at the London Underground Signals Office, during 1920s. His job was primarily to draw schematics for electrical systems of the London Underground as well. Beck designed the Tube map when he was unemployed. This interesting fact points out that the map is the creation of a curious mind rather than the one following instructions of an employer. It was Beck’s innovative idea that divorced the notoriously convoluted geography from his map design. At that time, the idea was alien to authorities and for its rather radical nature the initial design was rejected after being submitted to Frank Pick of London Underground, in 1931.

Beck assumed that passengers riding the Tube were not as much concerned about geographical accuracy as they were interested in finding their way out from one station to another. While working at an electrical circuit diagram, he came up with this ingenious idea of prioritizing the map outlining the subway system itself rather than accurately mentioning the distance. Even though it was rejected by Publicity department, Beck’s perseverance culminated in a successful trial of 500 copies which was distributed at a select few stations, in 1932. The following year, the map was given its first full publication, printing seven hundred thousand copies. In a brief period of time, it received an astounding response which proved its efficaciousness and went for reprinting only after a month of its publication.

In the revised version of the map, Beck rationally mapped out what is it that the Tube passenger required to see to navigate easily without being lost in distance and measurements. He found the answer in exploring how the various tube stations and rail lines were connected with one another. He applied the Modernist grid system upon the city by eliminating all rail lines and added minimal vocabulary of symbols ingrained with bright colors. The end product was a quintessential work of twentieth century information design.

Another one of his project that received his reductive and Modernist treatment was the Paris Metro. He designed two versions of a map for the city’s labyrinthine subway system, again without being commissioned to do the job. The first one was an initial proposal presented in 1930s. The revised version of the map appeared in 1951. However, the French strongly disapproved of Beck’s designs for an array of reasons. They believed that their monorail system can’t be drawn without taking city’s geography into consideration. Another apparent excuse was the strong national sentiment towards maps of their actual city.

Over the thirty years, Harry Beck consistently updated and revised his original London Underground map. However, from 1960 on-wards his contributions were decidedly unwelcomed as the newly hired publicity manager for the London Underground took over. Beck was neither paid considerably nor properly recognized for his seminal work until he passed away in 1974. Although Beck couldn’t enjoy fame and status in his lifetime, his work became a legacy for the map designers to come who would take inspiration from his vision, mapping a staggering array of transport systems.