London Underground map: a history in pictures

By Ian Jones, MSN UK news editor Victor Watts/Rex Features
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150 years of the Underground: how the map became a global icon

Throughout the London Underground's 150-year history, artists and designers have relished the challenge of finding the best way to represent the network as a map. The results have been ambitious, eccentric, sometimes baffling, but always intriguing. The Underground map is now considered a style icon and is familiar the world over. But how did it acquire this celebrated status? Click through to see the fascinating evolution of a design classic.

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1908 - unknown

By the first decade of the 20th century, most of the Underground lines and stations in the centre of London had been built. This is one of the earliest attempts to present all the lines on one map. The colour of the lines is radically different to those used today, and the author - unknown - has tried to be as geographically accurate as possible. This makes some parts of the map a little confusing, with information squashed together and station names hard to read. Nonetheless the main axis of the network - the Central line, here shown in blue - is present and correct, as is the outline of the Circle line.

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1919 - unknown

This is another early effort at mapping the Underground, again by an unknown designer. There is no attempt at colour coding; the entire Underground is shown in black, while some of the city's mainline services are coloured red. But you can see the genesis of what would become the traditional Underground map. Look at the way the stations are evenly spaced, and are depicted on straight or curved lines.

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1926 - Reginald Percy Gossop

Here's a 1920s map that tries to combine the Underground network with real geographical features. It's beautifully drawn by Reginald Percy Gossop, but is hard to read in some places, with stations jostling for attention with street names. It also shows how some parts of London were well-served by the Underground, but other parts were (and still are) untouched. Gossop studied at the Hammersmith School of Art and produced maps and posters for the Underground between 1925 and 1932.

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1928 - FH Stingemore

The artist FH Stingemore was born in 1890 and died in 1954. He designed posters for the Underground, and for its parent organisation London Transport, from 1914-1942. This map, dating from 1928, uses some of the colours that are familiar to us today, such as black for the Northern line, brown for the Bakerloo and green for the District. It shows the Underground had yet to expand into north-east London. It also chooses to feature only the centre of the network, avoiding the western ends of the lines completely.

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1932 - Charles Burton

Here's a slightly different approach to mapping the Underground, as drawn by Charles Burton. London is turned on its side, with the Underground only present in the bottom right-hand corner. Instead the River Thames is the main focus, flowing north to south, with bus and tram routes given equal prominence as the Underground. This map was clearly meant as much for tourists as residents.

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1933 - FH Stingemore

Stingemore updated his map in 1933 to show the growth of the Underground through London's suburbs. Here you can now see the Piccadilly line snaking up through the north to Cockfosters, while the Northern line stretches as far north-west as Edgware. However north-east London is still completely bereft of the Underground, and the centre of the map is so crowded it is almost illegible. All of this was about to change.

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1934 - unknown

This striking design is more of a diagram than a map, and was drawn perhaps deliberately to prioritise the Underground stations within central London. Its author is unknown, but the concept foreshadows the work of a man who would go on to create the template for the map that is still used today: Harry Beck.

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1933 - Harry Beck

Here is where the modern history of the Underground map begins. Harry Beck was an engineering draftsman who worked for London Underground. In his spare time he drew a version of the Underground map that reimagined the network as a diagram. He was inspired by similar non-geographic designs that had started appearing on some mainline trains, and also in part by the layout of a circuit board. He came up with his diagram in 1931 and submitted it to London Underground bosses, who were initially wary of such a radical new look. But when a trial production of 500 copies proved successful in 1932, full publication followed in 1933. It was an immediate hit with the public. Beck would spend the next 20 years working on expanding and refining his ideas.

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1937 - Harry Beck

Beck believed in following certain rules when drawing his Underground maps. Where possible, straight lines should be used. Diagonals should always been at an angle of 45 degrees. Stations should be spaced equally apart, regardless of geography. But Beck was also willing to experiment, as you can see here in the way he chooses to depict the lines and stations in central London.

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1938 - Harry Beck

Just one year later, Beck has refined his idea of having big symbols for the stations in central London, but has expanded his design to incorporate planned extensions to the Central, Northern and Bakerloo lines. You can begin to recognise the shape of the map as it looks today - although some of the proposed extensions, such as those linking the Northern line branches in north London, were never completed thanks to the outbreak of the second world war.

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1948 - Harry Beck

Beck continued to revise his map for a decade or so following the second world war. This version from 1948 showed him experimenting with a rather dramatic change of style, using interlocking circles used to denote interchanges and realigning the diagonals along much steeper angles. The map also shows proposed extensions to the Central and Northern lines. All of these were subsequently built, except the Northern line extensions to Bushey Heath and Alexandra Palace, and the link between Mill Hill East and Edgware.

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The map today

Harry Beck fell out of favour with London Underground in the 1950s, who had begun to consider him pedantic and obsessive. From the 1960s onwards, other artists and designers were employed to produce updated versions of the map, while Beck's ideas were rejected. He continued sketching maps until his death in 1974, none of which were ever published. Yet Beck's concept was never altered by any of his successors, and remains the template for the map we know and love today. It has also inspired maps for other public transport networks around the world.