Harry Beck: Biography

Henry Charles “Harry” Beck (born 1902 in London; died 1974, London) designed the iconic topological map of London’s Underground subway system (known as the Tube), published in 1933.  Beck was an unlikely cartographic innovator, in that he worked primarily as an engineering draftsman, drawing schematics for electrical systems including that of the London Underground itself.  Ironically, Beck was unemployed at the time he designed his Tube map, meaning his design arose from his own curiosity, rather than in response to the directive of an employer or potential client.  Beck’s signature innovation lay in divorcing his map design from the notoriously convoluted (and disproportionately dense) geography of the city of London.  This leap was so radical for its time, in fact, that his initial design, submitted in 1931, was rejected by Frank Pick, who carefully cultivated the public image of the London Underground through his role as managing director of the Underground Group(and, later, as director of the entire London Passenger Transport Board).  It was also Frank Pick who accepted Beck’s revised map design in 1933.

Beck reasoned, in true Modernist fashion, that Tube passengers only needed to visualize how the various tube stations and rail lines linked up with one another in order to navigate the city through this subterranean network.  Further, he imposed a Modernist grid system upon the city, reducing all rail lines (no matter how fitful in reality) to 90- and 45-degree-angled pathways (a choice believed to be inspired, in part, by plans for London’s sewer system), and employed a minimal vocabulary of symbols coupled with bright colors (both clearly inspired by iconography from electrical schematics).  The result was a seminal work of twentieth century information design, both inspired and highly functional in its reductive nature.

Beck also turned his reductive, Modernist vision towards the Paris Metro, designing two (again, unsolicited) versions of a map for that city’s labyrinthine subway system: an initial proposal in the late 1930s, and a revision in 1951.  The French staunchly rejected Beck’s designs, for a tangled array of reasons including the fact that their monorail system (a larger percentage of which existed above-ground as well as below, and the underground portions of which were built closer to ground-level than London’s) was more closely tied to the geography of the city itself, and because of strong national sentiment towards maps of their actual city. 

Beck contributed to updates and revisions of his original London Underground map over the course of 30 years, until his contributions were decidedly unwelcomed (as of 1960) by Harold Hutchison, a newly hired publicity manager for the London Underground.  Beck was only ever paid the equivalent of ten U.S. dollars for his original map design, and did not receive proper recognition for the extent of his contribution until after his death in 1974.  Though explicit recognition was slow to come for Beck himself, his map quickly and lastingly inspired map designs for a staggering array of transport systems (subway systems from Sydney to New York, as well as airline and shipping companies) for years to come.

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