The Tube map

The Tube map is synonymous with London and a truly iconic design. But how much do you know about its history, and how it evolved from the small first railways, to the sprawling expanse we know today?

Browse through our gallery above to see how the map has evolved over the years, and read on to discover the full story. Click on any of the images to find out more!

Plus, discover even more maps on our Collection Online.

The map story

London's first public transport maps were produced by the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railways, which were established in the 1860s and 1870s respectively. These geographic maps showed a timetable, connections to horse buses, and even places of interest.

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As more Underground lines began to open during the 1890s and early 1900s, maps needed to include a lot more information. By 1908, London's various railways produced a single map to promote their operations as part of an integrated system.

This new standard map and the versions that followed, which were produced as posters and pocket maps - were intended to help people find their way around London. However, including the entirety of each line in a geographical map led to a map that was very crowded towards the centre of London, and was difficult for travellers to read.

A new solution

1999 321In 1931, a temporary draughtsman working for the Underground came up with a solution. Harry Beck designed a radically different map of the network which we still recognise today - based on a an electric circuit diagram.

The dense central area was enlarged in relation to the outlying areas, allowing both to be shown more clearly. It was not geographically accurate, but helped passengers to understand the network quickly and easily.

It used only horizontal, vertical and 45º lines, and each Underground line was represented by a different colour.

This new map idea was initially rejected by the Underground's publicity department for being too revolutionary. Beck made some alterations, in particular making station names more prominent and replacing circular 'blobs', representing stations, with rectangular 'ticks'. After Beck put forward his proposal again, a version was produced as a trial pocket map in 1933. It was an immediate success with the travelling public, and new pocket editions and posters were soon published.

Evolution and changes

Since its introduction, Beck's design classic has undergone, many changes. Beck himself continued to experimented with new versions of the map for 28 years, adjusting the map on suggestions from both the public and London Transport.

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Amongst the earliest changes was the introduction of a ring as the symbol for an interchange station.

In 1935, the red and orange Bakerloo and Central lines, which were difficult to tell apart under artificial light, were altered to brown and red.

In the early 1940s, although no longer working for London Transport, Beck continued to revise the map in his own time. Experiments with 60° diagonals were not successful and he reverted to the original 45° system.

1992 852During the 1960s and 70s, the map had to be modified to incorporate several new extensions, most notably to Heathrow Airport, and two new lines; the Victoria and Jubilee. The current map is known as the 'Journey Planner' and includes the Docklands Light Railway, Overground, Tram, Emirates Air Line and TfL Rail lines. 

Inspiring maps around the world

The London Underground map is internationally recognised as an example of graphic and information design excellence. Many other urban railways including New York, Sydney and Leningrad, have 'borrowed' Beck's concept for their own maps. Beck actually produced a proposal for the Paris Metro, which was not used, although the eventual map incorporated elements of Beck's design for the London version.

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Night tube map, January 2018

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Step-free Tube guide, December 2009

Other versions of the map

Other inclusions on modern versions of the map include adding blue symbols on stations with step-free access from street to platform and grey and white areas depicting which zone each station is in. 

Many artists have also been inspired by the map; creating artwork inspired by the design of the map, finding hidden animals within the tangle of tube lines, and creating the map in different mediums - from acrylic paint to LEGO.

Other versions of the map have also been produced by TfL to advertise different ways of getting around. Discover them below!

Map quiz

Can you tell your Hammersmith and City from your Metropolitan lines? Think you know what colour the Elizabeth line will be? Test out your Tube knowledge with our fiendishly difficult map quiz! Share your results with us on social media by tagging @ltmuseum.


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