London Underground Map Myths


The diagrammatic London Underground map was inspired by electrical circuit diagrams

Nothing short of laziness perpetrates this myth. Has any advocate of this position even seen an electrical circuit diagram before? Here is a section from the first published Underground map, 1933:


And here is an electrical circuit diagram from 1922. Can anybody tell the difference?


Where to begin? Electrical circuit diagrams did not use colour, diagonal lines were not permitted, and there was no need for any spatial correspondence with reality whatsoever. [For example, on the current Underground map, it would be much neater if the Piccadilly Line to Cockfosters and the Victoria Line to Walthamstow were flipped over. In an electrical circuit context, this is entirely permissible, but would be unthinkable on a railway map.] Not convinced? OK, here is a car line diagram, also from 1922, from the District Line:

[This reconstruction reproduced from Dow, Andrew, (2005). Telling the passenger where to get off.
Harrow Weald: Capital Transport Publishing. Reproduced with permission.]


So, on the car line diagram, we have use of horizontal and vertical lines only, and expansion at the centre at the expense of the suburbs. Which of these looks more like the precursor of Henry Beck's work? Don't forget that he would have been a frequent Underground user and would have seen line diagrams like this almost every day for many years before his first sketching.

So, what is the source of this myth. Undoubtedly, Beck's 1933 comedy sketch - in which he turned the Underground map into a mock circuit diagram - sowed the seeds, although apparently he himself made no claims for such inspiration. Into this vacuum flowed the myth. This does lead to the obvious question, if Beck was inspired by car line diagrams, why did he not say so? What we have to remember here is that, throughout his tenure and afterwards, Beck was involved in a series of priority disputes with London Transport concerning the Underground map. His claim was (1) that as the originator of the diagrammatic London Underground map, he should be the sole producer of all future designs following his rules, and (2) that London Transport had agreed to this in return for his assigning copyright to them. Of course, any argument along the lines of "you didn't originate these principles, they were devised by the person who drew the District Line car line diagram in 1922" would have stopped Beck in his tracks. One would naturally, therefore, expect him to play down the connection.


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Last updated 30/11/07