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You can see the original tube map drawing at a new British Library exhibition

Written by
Kyra Hanson

We'd all be moaning a lot more about our commutes without the distinctive and (mostly) easily navigable tube map to lead us on our way. Though if you think the 2016 tube map is difficult to read it's a good thing you weren't around in the 1930s when Harry Beck designed the first one, which you can see as part of a new exhibition at The British Library. 

These modest squiggly lines may not look like much, but by straightening out the lines and evening the distance between stations, Beck made Londoners' journeys a hell of a lot easier. And what's more, he was never fully appreciated for his work. 

At a time when geographical accuracy was favoured over sense and readability, Beck was originally dismissed from his job as a draughtsman on the Underground when he first pitched the idea. Eventually, London Underground saw sense and commissioned him, but they dropped him again in 1959 in favour of a design from the publicity department. 

In an interview with Time Out in 2007, Ken Garland, the man who rescued the original sketches from the rubbish said: ‘The tube diagram is one of the greatest pieces of graphic design produced, instantly recognisable and copied across the world. His contribution to London cannot be easily measured, nor should it be underestimated.' 

The rest of the exhibition takes you on a cartographical journey through the twentieth century with exhibits ranging from the first map of Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood to the London A-Z, created out of a need for newcomers to navigate the city conveniently thanks to a wave of mass immigration, to lesser-known political pocket atlases like the ‘Plebs Atlas’, which sounds like one of those Atlas for Dummies things. 

'Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line' is at the British Library November 4–March 1. Get tickets.

Want more tube history? See inside Edgware Road's 90-year-old tube signalling cabin

Or find out which tube line has the most badly behaved passengers

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