An early copy of Harry Beck’s iconic 1935 London Underground map fetched £10,000 when it went under the hammer in Sotheby’s Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History auction recently.
Beck, from Leyton in east London, was an electrical draughtsman working for London Underground. While drawing an electrical circuit diagram, he came up with the idea of creating a simple, but brilliant, map for the Tube system based on the circuit diagram and with all of the stations more-or-less equally spaced. He was convinced that Underground passengers were not concerned with geographical accuracy but more interested in how to get from one station to another and where to change trains.
His first draft was initially rejected by London Transport who considered it would be too revolutionary for the public. Eventually published for a trial period, the public were asked to get back to them with any comments and it was soon apparent that just about everyone loved it; Beck’s map has been held with great affection by Londoners and visitors ever since, because it’s so clear and simple to use. Beck had been proven correct, and remains so to this day.
Beck’s map was published in 1933 and has been reprinted and revised to the present day – an innovation that would become essential for mapping complex transport systems all over the world. In 1938 he produced a diagram of the entire rail system of the London region, including both the Underground and mainlines; he also produced at least two versions of a diagram for the Paris Métro.
The commercial value to London Transport and the rest of the world is immeasurable; but it is rumoured that Beck was only paid 10 guineas, probably about two weeks wages in those days. According to other accounts at the time, he worked on the map only in his spare time and was never actually paid anything for it.
Beck continued to update the Tube map regularly on a freelance basis for many years until changes were introduced by London Transport without his approval, and his name was removed from the bottom of every map. He struggled furiously to regain control in a long legal dispute but eventually gave up the battle in 1965, “bitter and betrayed by the very organisation he had helped, so admirably, to promote”.
In 1997, Beck's importance was posthumously recognised and the statement, 'This diagram is an evolution of the original design conceived in 1931 by Harry Beck', is printed on every London Underground map. There is also a Beck gallery at the London Transport Museum and commemorative plaques have been installed at Finchley Central Tube station and at Harry’s homes in Finchley and Leyton. The map was also included in a set of Royal Mail postage stamps celebrating British design classics. And to top it all, in March 2006, Harry Beck's Tube map was voted the second-favourite British design of the 20th century; in first place was Concorde.
Not a bad achievement for an electrical draughtsman, is it? So bear that in mind if you’re ever asked to put together an electrical circuit diagram for a client. Who knows where it might lead…