Like the London Underground

This first appeared more than a year ago. It is a favourite of mine: a look at The London Underground Map.

The London tube system always blows my mind.

Its scale, its history, the sheer engineering genius which has gone, and will continue to go, into transporting people across a settlement which is thousands of years old; it is vast.

And the map which represents it is a design icon: and the story which accompanies its inception a favourite of mine.

The story of mapping the Underground tracks back to when little Harry Beck, its designer, was just six years old.

Of course, in the early days, during the 19th century, London Underground did not exist. It was a series of private companies dominating different parts of London.

But when Harry was six, it was decided to brand a group of five companies under the single name  – The Underground. And as befits a single large concern, they commissioned a visual representation of the combined strength – eight train lines- of this new Leviathan.

Early on the lines followed an accurate geographical representation of where the lines really led. Thus, one part of the map was really rather crowded as all of the lines jostled for attention.

Pretty, though.

It was not until 1920 – when Harry was 18-  that someone thought to leave out the geographic detail. In all honesty, when you are hurtling through the bowels of London at a breakneck speed it does not matter one whit that Hyde Park is passing regally over your head.

And still, they were slaves to geography. Those cramped lines nudged and jostled and vied for attention, there in two sectors of a 16-sector map, where the British Museum is king.

It took 19 years of Harry’s life to get to the point where he began his Magnum Opus.

in 1931 he was working at the London Underground Signals office, a humble draughtsman. And he could see something that no-one else could: that one could throw away the geographical location and go topological.

Why? Because essentially, the London Underground is a series of pathways joined by junctures. Carried around by the miracle of electrical charge, the cylinders filled with tiny people travel in short-spurt journeys, stopping at stations to change directions, deep, deep within.

No-one commissioned his design: it was done in Harry’s spare time. Finally, two years after he started work on the map, it appeared in a small leaflet in 1933.

And the people spoke. It was immediately popular.

Harry never got proper credit for this work during his lifetime. He went on to design a diagrammatic map of the whole London Region rail system; and even depicted the Paris Metro. He died in 1972, but it was not until the 1990s that the London Transport Museum opened the Beck Gallery, a celebration of his achievements.

Interesting that people who saw his work likened it to circuit diagrams: those line drawings in which the concept of the flow of electricity becomes manageable.

Electricity has been a silent partner in man’s development for thousands of years. And as we developed our understanding, a visual diagrammatic language evolved.

It seems that, like musical manuscript, a common means of communicating the apparatus of a circuit emerged. We all know what a battery should look like: and how to show the flow of something as ethereal and wild as an electrical current from one juncture to another.

We can show junctions, direction and strength of flow, and so much more using a line-map. Simple, and while not representing what electricity looks like, it clothes a complex concept in a devastatingly simple way.

This afternoon I attended some training: it was about some of the pin-up boys of my intellectual world, synapses.

Synapses are, in essence, junctions. In the right electrical or chemical conditions, neurons – cells with an aptitude for being the messenger boys of the body –  can take vital signals to and from different parts of the body.

So: whenever we sense a smell or a sound, a sight or a touch, the neurons get busy, like the myriad people of the London Underground, heading for a destination.

Every now and then they arrive at a junction: a gap, a tube station, across which there is a biological switch.

If conditions are right the synapses fire: the neurons pass across; the message progresses along its path.

But there may be more than one station on the journey. Some journeys take longer. A pain signal may arrive first because the journey is short: deep rubbing, however, takes longer but when it reaches the same station, it can override some pain.

These little connections are the basis of our living lives, of our thinking and our feeling. Breathtaking.

As I watched this afternoon, the lecturer sketched a spinal cord and a brain and described the paths of different functions and I thought, that, my friend, is just like London Underground.

Only a bit more complicated.

Map source – and a post about Harry Beck – here at the Dabbler


36 thoughts on “Like the London Underground

  1. The Underground map has to one of my favourite graphics of all time. Have a look at Indigo Bunting for great graphics - – I don’t know why the link has an .fr link as the designer is based in New York.

  2. spent many a happy hour on the underground as a child growing up – so simple to follow, so exciting, with those names some of which I still haven’t been to – even now I have the picture firmly in my memory banks. Taking me to shops, parties, interviews, jobs, museums, funfairs, gigs etc. such fun. plunging in and out of tunnels, into the open air and then down again – seeing ghostly remains of once been places through steamy grime crusted windows. the whoosh of danger on platforms as trians hurtled through, silly rounded roofs and wonderful slow escalators one could, many many decades ago, leap up or go down the wrong way (until adults intervened:(

    synapsis now better still – when my mother was slowly decending into her silent world of PSP – I used the idea of synapsis to help her, became our ‘code’ ‘answer for everything’ for what was wrong with our world. She understood messages and trains and stations – her father worked the railways in the time of The Great Western – she grew up when post was delivered three times a day – she lived in London most of her married life – she understood the concept and synapsis served us well. Simple designs for complicated works.

    1. Alberta, that was just a wonderful comment. I love your description of the Underground – it brought back so many childhood memories. And your relationship between yourself and your mother, the special code you both had- wonderful.

  3. I did not know the history of the Underground map and Harry Beck, very interesting. When the lovely Miss TK and I visited three years ago, we took the train from Birmingham to London and decided to take the Underground as well just for fun as opposed to going to a particular place. An amazing central station and we probably took 20 minutes or so reading the map you show here before deciding how to proceed. Had a great time and finally went above ground and started touring the city. A great day in London.

    1. I love your idea of a Central Station, Lou. I adored Grand Central in New York when I went there – just stood for ages with my mouth hanging open. I guess you would have arrived at Euston, or maybe Marylebone? Our stations are large but scattered, and the London Underground is an efficient way to get from one to the other. I could ramble on about it for ages…I remember Phil’s incredulous tones, just after we met, when I thought it was possible to get on a train from Waterloo and arrive eventually at Liverpool. Him being a train buff, the idea was as heretical as suggesting you could get a train to the moon.

      1. It was Euston, it was huge and sooooo busy. I know we looked like a couple of ogling hicks walking around with our mouths open and trying to figure out the map. I think we finally just picked a color and took off. Such fun!

  4. I always find myself saying ‘how fascinating’ to your posts, that map is perhaps something we take for granted, it is our normal but to think that it was once new and radical, well, that’s pretty cool. I love your comparison, synpases are also pretty cool. Junctions and signals. 🙂

  5. Great post Kate – they should add little icons on the map to highlight where bedraggled groups of Spanish Language students congregate at platform entrances staring blindly at the tube map figuring how to get to Baker Street. Not that I’m moaning. Poor things probably had a three day wait at Heathrow to reach Blighty.

  6. All my working life has been filled with circuits, Kate. How right you are about the Underground map. Well conceived and well presented.
    Love, Dad

  7. Lovely analogy Kate! I remember reading how many of those connections are built prior to age 3 and as such, my poor kids were dragged to every synapse firing I could manage.

    1. I have no doubt that your kid’s synapses are the deluxe model, Tammy, the amazing diet they get. I do love reading about your adventures with seasonal stuff: inspiring, and practical. I have got a batch of fantastic recipes over the time I have been following!

  8. Like your other readers.. I love that Harry created the better map. But I also love your inclusion of the body’s “map” as well.. great metaphor today!

    1. Thanks, Smidge 🙂 Just reading Debra’s comment, below, about a children’s book which explained the neurology of the brain using line diagrams: I would give anything to see that book…

  9. I love to read of someone’s attention to communicating something in a new way…not worrying about whether or not he got the credit, just doing it because it needed to make sense to him! Your thoughts about neural circuitry remind me of about twenty years ago when I took a college course on “how the brain works.” The course was for educators, and I was struggling with how much chemistry was required…and my previous college sciences were taken back at the turn of the century! I found some wonderful children’s books–probably intended for middle schoolers–and it was the “maps” and line drawings that basically got me up to speed. I did well in the course and loved everything about it. I may share something of that book someday because it was brilliant! I an still visualize the circuitry as drawn for children…but it was accurate! There’s a lot to be said about keeping communication simple! 🙂 Debra

      1. I know I still have the one, Kate. When I’m home tonight I’ll look it up! It was so helpful! I think the others were library books. I’ll send you the name soon! D

  10. The Underground was the first major subway system I ever navigated on my own. Yes, even before Boston, and I fell a little in love. I still have a ragged trifold map somewhere, Beck’s design lovingly studied as I hurtled into and about the city.

    For the years I lived near and commuted by the T, its maps–from Beck’s template, oh the things you learn here!–reminded me of that trip.

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