1932 + 1933

Posted: January 30th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized |

I usually don’t like to brag about a particular acquisition, but in this case I will make an exception. I was completely over the moon when I finally held in my hands the original Harry Beck London Underground foldout map from 1933. But I was even more thrilled to get hold of the preceding version of the map from 1932, clearly based on geographical location. London is undoubtedly an amazing place for someone interested in antique maps and books…

The two maps on the top are only a few months apart; however, they are separated by a drastic shift in mindset. The one on the left is the foldout map from 1932, still trying to conform to the geographical accuracy of its many stations. The one on the right, from 1933, was the brainchild of engineering draftsman Harry Beck, who decided to disregard geography for sake of legibility and understanding, leading to an irreversible path to abstraction that reached its peak with Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 map of the New York City Subway system. Beck’s contribution ended up becoming a major landmark of Information/Graphic Design and one of the most important maps of all time.

He believed that passengers riding the trains weren’t too bothered about the geographical accuracy, but were more interested in how to get from one station to another, and where to change. Thus he drew his famous diagram, looking more like an electrical schematic than a true map, on which all the stations were more or less equally spaced.

This path to abstraction started a few years before, in 1920 to be precise, with MacDonald Gill’s version, where he removed all the background detail (roads, parks, etc) that had been included in most of the previous designs. But it was Harry Beck who took the decisive step forward.

The Underground management was a little unsure of how the public would react to such a revolutionary change in the design, and in this original trial run from 1933 you can read a note on the front cover inviting people to send their comments to the Publicity Manager. The new map would end up being extremely well received, and becoming a major influence to all underground (subway) maps in the world.

It’s only when you see the two maps side-by-side (before and after) that you really understand the challenge and achievement of Harry Beck. This is the main reason why I’m having them framed together, to allow for an easy comparison between the two. What’s so impressive about Beck’s design, apart from its historical significance, is that it looks as modern and fresh today as it did in 1933. Follow this link for an extended history of the London Underground map.

7 Comments on “1932 + 1933”

  1. 1 Johan van Rooyen said at 6:03 pm on January 30th, 2009:

    What a mouthwatering post! You’re clearly a very deserving owner of these two maps.

  2. 2 Softomic LLC said at 6:43 pm on March 22nd, 2009:

    Thanks for the history lesson. I have a personal gripe, though, about this kind of map with skewed dimensions. In NYC, subway maps are free and I remember when I first visited the city, I used a subway map to get to know my way around the city. My free subway map was great as long as they stay in the subway system. Beware anyone who wants to use the map as a walking guide, though. If you are on foot, don’t rely on the subway map to inform you of the next closest station. For that, you need to carry a separate map. I suppose that is a feature that wasn’t deemed important. That being said, I also like the curvy look of the old style.

    Paul St. Amant

  3. 3 Alex Bowles said at 9:22 pm on March 22nd, 2009:

    This is what a revolution looks like.

    Also makes a spectacular metaphor for media operations mired in a mechanical / analog-centric view (and trying to make the web conform) in contrast to ones that realize there’s an entirely new basis for communication, and develop themselves accordingly.

  4. 4 Stephanie Cooper said at 11:15 pm on March 23rd, 2009:

    What would I expect to pay if I were fortunate enough to find similar items on my next trip to Londone? Do tell….

  5. 5 Amit said at 9:38 am on April 6th, 2009:

    The difference between the 2 maps is phenominal. I certainly prefer the new one, though I would agree with Paul that if you are on foot, beware!

  6. 6 el don said at 9:57 pm on April 21st, 2009:

    great maps: railways maps - and timetables - a big thing for me. the london underground one of the most romantic, maybe rival to NYC. the best practical mapping i’ve seen is the railway timetable in japan, published every year, complete with geographical map and lines -with corresponding page numbers- in the front for cross-referencing

    enjoying your site in general, thanks

  7. 7 ArianaVect said at 9:00 am on May 14th, 2009:

    hi, thanks,The article was very well written, very helpful to me

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