Sunday Maptinee: How Electrical Circuits Inspired the London Underground Map

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Have you been on a subway lately? In those dark and dusty tunnels it can be hard to know which way the train is going and where you’re supposed to be going. Investigating unfamiliar subways can be an adventure, but it can also be frustrating to go the wrong way.

The London Underground is perhaps one of the most famous subways systems in the entire world. The colorful map everyone sees as they descend into the subway weren’t just thrown together one day, but were a product of a lot of careful thought and consideration.

Harry Beck was the designer of the London Underground map and official cartographer until 1960. He created the London Underground map that we know today to make it simpler and easier to understand where all the lines connected to one another. The stops became easier to visualize in relation to one another and the street system aboveground.

Harry Beck's London Underground Map from 1933.

Harry Beck’s London Underground Map from 1933.

Harry Beck took his inspiration from electrical circuits, taking the previously windy lines on the subway map and making them straight. He used what is now called the Central Line as a horizontal base from which to connect the other lines to it. Beck’s Underground map was released in 1933 in the form of a pocket map that could be easily folded up and stored in peoples’ pockets. Later that year the larger, flat maps were displayed on the subway walls as the public reacted well to the new map.

Harry Beck, the cartographer behind the London Underground map holds his inspiration for the design, an electrical circuit board.

Harry Beck, the cartographer behind the London Underground map holds his inspiration for the design, an electrical circuit board.

Convenient and tidy, the new map received rave reviews not only from other cartographers, but from the London public as well. The subway system became easier to navigate even for visitors new to the city. Beck ended his career as the chief London Underground cartographer in 1960 after overseeing line expansions, subway improvements and the growth of modern London.

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