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The Iconic London Underground Tube Map

Author:

Michael has been teaching social science economics and ICT since the 1980's.

Harry Beck's Tube Map

London Underground Tube Map by Harry Beck

Not just a map but an iconic piece of art, design and street decoration. People have actually stolen these maps from the stations to hang in their homes.

Every day over 3.5 million people use the London underground system. The Tube; as Londoners call it, has been doing it's job extremely well for over 100 years.

The Map has been around since circa 1931-3; when it was decided to try to rationalize the layout of the railway network, into a compact format, to help people understand how to get around the system more efficiently.

As the network grew, the need for people to find their way around, became more important. It may seem obvious to us today but this was not the case back in the 1930s

Harry Beck's Original 1931 - 33 Tube Map

Harry Beck was an engineering draftsman on the London Underground. His ground breaking design is recognized globally.

Harry Beck was an engineering draftsman on the London Underground. His ground breaking design is recognized globally.

Harry Beck's London Tube Map

Henry Charles Beck commonly known as Harry Beck.

Henry Charles Beck commonly known as Harry Beck.

Form and Function

Social history

Many people in London live quite simple lives in terms of travel. In many cases they go between their homes and workplace and so get to know 'their' route. Ask them to go somewhere else in London and they would be as lost as any tourist.

The need for a clear functional map was obvious and so Harry Beck reduced the sprawling geographical maps down to a form of circuit diagram. As an engineering draftsman this made perfect sense to him.


Keeping it simple isn't easy

If we consider the typical circuit diagram of the electrical system of a house. We we can see that it bears no resemblance to where the actual cables and wires that go around the house. But we can see how the circuits work and connect together.

The Tube map that Harry Beck produced, is a work of genius. The same method has been used around the world by many other railway companies.

This design is different because it is not, a geographically accurate map. In fact it bears little resemblance to reality at all. What it does do is display where all the stations are in a relatively small space and with a over simplified layout to make it understandable.

For example if we look at the Northern line (top right quarter) we can see that it doesn't run in a straight line geographically but on Harry's map, it is a shown as a straight line.

The 2012 London Tube Map

Retains Harry Beck's classic design. Additional stations and new railway lines have been included.

Retains Harry Beck's classic design. Additional stations and new railway lines have been included.

Reading the Tube Map

The current map is divided into 6 zones radiating out from the centre of the map. Zone 1 in the centre of London to the outer suburbs in Zone 6.

You can see the 6 zones on the 2012 map above. The network covers just about every part of London and it is quite easy to time your journey. On average it takes 2 minutes between stations, so it is quite easy to accurately work out, how long it will take to get to any station on the network.

As the network has expanded out of London, to the surrounding countryside. More and more former country areas have become 'part' of greater London. Most of these formerly rural sections of the railway like Stratford in the east end of London are above ground. So don't be confused if your journey is not totally underground.

London has had it's fair share of firsts. The London underground railway was the first of it's kind in the world.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel's railway and walking tunnels under the River Thames where also first's as was the steam powered railway engine.

Harry Beck has left us a timeless first. In his remarkable tube map.

1907 Geographical Tube Map by FH Stingemore

This geographical version of the Tube map dates from 1907. We can see even at this early time the Tube network was extensive.

This geographical version of the Tube map dates from 1907. We can see even at this early time the Tube network was extensive.

The first underground system used steam engines

Tourists and Locals need the Tube Map

Many tourists and Londoners alike can find the Tube map a little daunting but it is really easy to understand if you take some time to study it in detail. As mentioned above. Think of it as a circuit diagram and forget geography, and it become's very easy to use.

It is a masterful piece of work and rightly deserves it iconic status. It is a fresh and contemporary today as the day it was first published. It is the London Underground.

The big blue line is a representation of the River Thames.Everything above the blue line is north of the river and everything below is south. Recently it was suggested that the River Thames should be removed. There was such an outcry that the plans were dropped immediately. It has become a deeply cherished object.

1907 Geograhical Map and the 2012 Journey Planner

The actual geographic layout is somewhat different and looks like something from the middle ages.

Find your way around London, on all forms of public transport including bicycles, with the official London 2012 journey planner.

Comments

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on February 09, 2017:

Hi Nell, lol I know what you mean. It's a bit like going on a treasure hunt with your own little map.

When you're alone there are less distractions and you can probably focus easier.

Liberating an underground roundel seems to be part of student life in London. ;)

Nell Rose from England on February 08, 2017:

I sort of can read the london underground maps, but yes I have got lost a few times! lol! funnily enough when I am on my own I tend to get there better! interesting stuff!

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on April 23, 2013:

Hi Steve,

It is an incredible feat of design. It is one of the most treasured pieces of street art by students in London. Hence the reason they go missing so often :)

Steve Mitchell from Cambridgeshire on April 22, 2013:

Mike, when I first heard about the iconic status of the map I thought about doing an article about it. Glad I didn't now I've read yours. Indon't think I could have done it the justice that you did.

Voted up and sharing.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on April 15, 2013:

Hello Elena,

The map is a thing of beauty, in it's simplicity and complexity at the same time.

I used to use the Tube when I lived in London.

It is a marvelous system if it wasn't for all the other people that are on there at the same time :)

Elena from London, UK on April 15, 2013:

Very interesting to read and even more interesting to see the Tube Map by FH Stingemore. The small Tupe maps that fold are so handy for wallets and I would be lost without one, trying to find my way round London.

Great Hub.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on March 29, 2013:

Hello Theresa,

thank you for your warm comments. It is always nice to hear from you.

I am glad that you enjoyed this little tribute to a very modest man. Harry Beck was a kind of visionary thinker in terms of design and function.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on March 24, 2013:

Michael - This is a marvelous Hub. Where else in Hubland can I find geography, city planning, history, and beautiful map art all in the same place. Just wonderful.

The only subway system I am familiar with is in Washington DC and of course it is a much smaller and less complicated area. I live near Atlanta, but almost never need to use MARTA.

The Tube maps are beautiful and I can see why people take them and frame them. Work has kept me awfully busy this year and you seem to be publishing less on HP -- all to say I have missed you.

I hope that you and Linda are well. Blessings. Theresa

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on March 12, 2013:

Hello J.Anne,

Glad you liked this brief homage to a great designer.

The Tube map is now a global phenomenon as we have seen in the above comments.

I wonder if Harry Beck ever thought his design would be so widely copied. Truly a masterpiece. I must get along to the transport museum sometime. Sounds fascinating.

J. Anne on March 07, 2013:

Awesome hub! I'm a huge fan of subways around the world, with London's tube being my absolute favorite.

The London Transport Museum is a great place to get more insight on the tube's creation, mapping, and visual design if you ever have a chance to go. (Super cool gift shop, too!)

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on January 15, 2013:

Thanks again Femme, you are a star.

This Tube map has indeed been stolen many many times, usually by students who are feeling a little anarchic.

It often adorns the shambles they call home. It is a masterpiece of design and understatement.

A bit like myself if I may be so bold. lol

femmeflashpoint on January 15, 2013:

Michael,

I'd not mind having a tube map on my wall, lol. It'd make for a great piece of nostalgia to hang near my desk. :)

I have never ridden a subway here or on your side of the pond. I'm not sure I would do well with it. That seems like a whole lot of earth and concrete to be resting overhead and I find the thought to be a bit creepy.

However, I would do it, just so I could say, "I've ridden on that." It's a pride thing. Kinda like riding your double-decker buses. ;)

I'm wondering, if this article were forwarded and passes around en masse, how high the numbers of missing tube maps in a short period of time would increase, lol.

My compliments to Mr. Beck for his old, yet perpetually fresh masterpiece.

Great hub!

femme

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on November 03, 2012:

Howzit Martie,

I think it is quite beautiful in it's own right.

It is surprising that these things that we take for granted, as just street furniture, almost become invisible in our daily lives... Until that is, they are no longer there. Then we see just how useful they were.

During WW II the British took down all the street signs, to confuse the Germans if they invaded.

It just confused the British lol

Martie Coetser from South Africa on November 03, 2012:

Amazing! Can't imagine touring London without this underground tube map.

Excellent hub, molometer!

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on November 02, 2012:

Hello again Aurelio,

It certainly is an extensive network and it it growing bigger every year. We are very lucky to have such a well connected city here in London.

The London Underground tube map is a little like the arteries of the city.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on November 01, 2012:

What a great overview of a useful transportation system. I love visiting London because it's so easy to get around without a car. Not like where I live, L.A., where it's impossible to get around without it. Voting this Up and Useful. SHARED.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on October 01, 2012:

Hello Wesley Meacham,

It is an iconic map for sure.

It has been interesting to hear from people, from all over the world that have seen derivative examples from the original concept.

Thanks for reading and sharing. Much appreciated.

Wesley Meacham from Wuhan, China on September 26, 2012:

I don't know if I'll ever visit London but even if I don't this was an interesting read. Very informative hub, not just about how to read a map but also about a bit of history. The historical vantage point is what I most enjoyed here. Well done. Voting up, sharing and pinning.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 12, 2012:

Hello freecampingaussie,

I agree, the bus is much better for sightseeing, but if you stay on the underground to the end of the line, there is some wonderful countryside to see too. Must check out your hub.

freecampingaussie from Southern Spain on September 12, 2012:

I really enjoyed using the tube while in London , see more on the buses when you have more time . I did a hub on daytrips out of London.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 12, 2012:

Hello Dina Blaszczak,

I am glad you liked this hub. The classic design of the London Underground Tube Map has spread around the world.

I wrote this hub to help visitors to London to get an understanding of how it works.

As you say, it takes a little while to get your head around it.

Once we do it is easy to read.

Michael

Dina Blaszczak from Poland on September 12, 2012:

I learnt some new things from your hub about London Underground Tube Map, so I'm pleased I looked in ;)

I used to live in the UK and occasionally went to London where I used the Tube. You are right reading the Tube Map appears rather confusing at first, but after a while it all becomes very clear.

Thanks for putting together this information! Voted up and Interesting.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 12, 2012:

Hi ITcoach,

Thanks for reading and leaving a great comment. Much appreciated.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 12, 2012:

Hi tillsontitan,

That is very interesting. Harry's Tube Map was adopted around the world. So far we have had examples in Delhi, Canada and now New York. That is so cool. It shows what a brilliant design it was.

Thanks for reading and letting us know.

ITcoach from United States on September 12, 2012:

molometer

Thanks for sharing your ideas, So informative and interesting. Keep it up in a positive manner. Waiting for your next hubs

Mary Craig from New York on September 12, 2012:

The maps you show are similar to the maps found in NY subways...I wonder? Regardless this was a very creative hub with interesting information for everyone, anywhere.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 07, 2012:

Hello aviannovice,

That would make a lot of sense as many countries adopted the London underground tube map as the standard.

Nice to know that it is in Toronto too.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on September 07, 2012:

This is great! It reminds me of the map on the train in Toronto.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 06, 2012:

Hello Lauryallan,

You are more than welcome. The great thing about hubpages is that we get to support each other, while we learn our craft.

Every hub I write is an experiment.

I don't restrict myself to 'niches' as I am more interested in the process of writing itself.

That is why you will find, my hubs cover disparate topics from the London Underground Tube Map to Oliver Cromwell.

For me the process is the thing, not the destination.

Lauryallan on September 06, 2012:

Yeah I guess I will. Thx for the compliment about my writing. It's always hard to judge your own work...

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 06, 2012:

Hi Lauryallan,

Thanks for the info on the little biters. I'll have to get some kind of repellent spray for when I visit Scotland.

I am sure people would like to read about your neck of the woods. You write well. Maybe you should try one just as a writing exercise.

Lauryallan on September 05, 2012:

No I haven't written any hubs about Scotland. I have to say I find it hard to write about something I take as normal and everyday. There's so much I could talk about but wouldn't really know where to start.

Yeah in terms of the pesky little flying biters (midges) you tend to find them around dusk and dawn. Also around plant life such as hedges and bushes. However, it is just the females that bite. Those swarms you see are all males... looking for females.

I don't know if there's really season... I guess it's more a case of when it's not too cold for them. That really depends on the weather patterns for the year and which part of Scotland you are in.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 05, 2012:

Thanks Lauryallan,

I really must do this trip. I hear that there is a midge season. Have you written any hubs on the region? They would be handy.

I almost had to use the London underground today, but I resisted lol.

Lauryallan on September 05, 2012:

Yeah the mountains are pretty cool. If you love hill walking then Scotland would be a great weekend retreat, although come prepared with clothing for every type of weather as it can change in a heartbeat.

Yeah Cambridge. Can't fault the weather there. Small world.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 05, 2012:

Hi Lauryallan,

Rainy Scotland lol. That is one country I haven't visited yet. I must get up there sometime. I hear that the mountains are pretty spectacular.

I was raised in London but now live in...Cambridge. Small world hey?

Lauryallan on September 05, 2012:

Yeah I don't have to do it anymore. I only ever had to go in for training and special work events. I was actually working in Cambridge and had to commute. Now I'm back in rainy Scotland and miss the sun that is a regular event in the south.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 04, 2012:

Hello Lauryallan,

Spoken like a true straphanger. It is an experience, to be sure. It is much better after the mad rush hours.

I'm guessing you don't have to do it anymore?

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 04, 2012:

Hello Pinkchic18,

There is nothing like a night out in London and catching the last train home. Everyone is in such a merry mood as you can imagine.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 04, 2012:

Hello girishpuri,

That is not so surprising, I suppose. Many railways around the world adopted this design.

Nice to know that the people of Delhi have such a great map too.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 04, 2012:

Hi Mhatter99,

Thanks for the comment. Let me guess BART. Bay Area Rail Transport ?

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 04, 2012:

Hello Vellur,

It is amazing isn't it. The design seems timeless and yet it is 79 years old. It looks like it was designed yesterday.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 04, 2012:

Hi Aurelio,

It is a marvel of engineering. You are correct it has grown in recent years. Several new lines have opened up and it is so much easier to get from north to south London. A journey that used to take an hour now takes just 6 minutes with the Jubilee Line.

Lauryallan on September 04, 2012:

Yeah I really hated getting into London in the morning rush hour from Kings Cross and trying to get on the Northern Line, always remember it as the black line on the map. Sometimes I was lucky to get a strap.

All the pushing and shoving and people packed in like a can of sardines. I get claustraphobic, especially when people are pushing you forward onto the tube and then back off again at each stop so they can get off.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 04, 2012:

Hi Alastar,

It is a work of genius. Sometime the simple answer is the best one.

The London Underground Tube Map is as British as fish and chips. We take these items for granted today, but when we look at the earlier maps, it changes our perception of the Henry's classic design.

Sarah Carlsley from Minnesota on September 04, 2012:

London is one place that I want to travel to someday, and the tube is one of my must-do's :)

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 04, 2012:

Hi Laura

You must have read my hub on being a straphanger. Armpits and elbows lol. It is much more civilised after the rush hours have finished.

Lauryallan on September 04, 2012:

I'm really not a fan of London and have been many times for pleasure and business. However, I have to admit that the tube is a blessing at times.

In rush hour the tube sucks and is very busy. I really dislike when I end up with my face in someone's sweaty armpit or with someone's hands on my ass.

On the other hand, it is the fastest way to get around London, without being stuck in traffic topside. Also some of the newer lines are cleaner, better maintained and generally nicer, such as the one out to Canary Wharf, Docklands.

The maps can be confusing the first time you go, but you quickly figure out which line you need to get on and then you're good to go.

Girish puri from NCR , INDIA on September 03, 2012:

Great job by Henry, The Metro map in New Delhi is more or less like Your tube map of London, great share, thanks

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on September 03, 2012:

This is a lot like BART. Thank you for this

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on September 03, 2012:

As you say the map is amazing and just takes a little time to understand - for me, then it is very easy to follow. This map is a masterpiece by itself, must have taken a lot of time and effort. An interesting read and voted up.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on September 03, 2012:

I've always loved the London underground but had not idea it was already that extensive in 1905. And as I recall when I was there last year, the line is growing even bigger? Voting this Up and Interesting. SHARED.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on September 03, 2012:

Believe there was a book i read recently called London Underground or something similar, mostly about the building history during the 19th century. Very interesting it was. In total agreement about Beck's genius with the map design. Impressive feat to say the least. Keep scrolling up and down comparing the different years. Got this marked to come back when extra time and check those links out thoroughly. Great hub idea and write, Michael. All the good stuff and share, mate.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on September 03, 2012:

Hello Ruby,

I am sure you would find your way around, no problem. I could always give you the 10 cent tour. lol

The London Underground Tube Map came to mind as I noticed so many people during the Olympics, looking at it quizzically and it made me think about it's development over the years.

It is a part of London life, as is the big red double decker bus. A must see. And through this hub you have now seen it : ) Glad you liked it.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on September 03, 2012:

I am the worst person to attempt to read a map, I'm afraid i would be forever lost in London, that's not saying i wouldn't love to visit, I would love to visit England. Interesting article and history..Thank's for sharing..