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.
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.