The Iconic Harry Beck Map But Make It Aeroplanes

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 9 months ago

Last Updated 22 September 2023

The Iconic Harry Beck Map But Make It Aeroplanes
A map of the world Harry Beck style
Click to enlarge. Image: Max Roberts/Tube Map Central

Henry "Harry" Beck will forever go down in history as the man who created the modern day tube map.

With Beck's nifty 'circuit board' design, precise geography was tossed asunder to make way for a schematic diagram which told passengers in the simplest terms possible how to get from A to B. The map is utterly iconic, and we frankly can't stop writing about it.

On a recent visit to Croydon Airport, a map displayed on the wall grabbed our attention: The angular lines! Those rounded pips at every stop! That Johnston font! It has all the hallmarks of a Harry Beck design, and, sure enough, in the bottom right-hand corner, is printed "H.C. BECK".

Close up of the map around Europe and the Middle East
Image: Max Roberts/Tube Map Central

Croydon Airport claims the map was created for Imperial Airways around 1935, providing passengers jet propeller-setting around the Empire with a simplified breakdown of routes. The numbers in red indicate the number of miles each destination is from Croydon, while a key breaks down the frequency of services. ("Four Services Weekly" — isn't that the same at the Met line? — ba dum tish!)

But were flyers really studying this design on a pocket map, to figure out whether they could get from Calcutta to Karachi in time for tea? Max Roberts — who recreated the map for the book Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design — reckons it was likely created a little later on than it claims. He told us:

British Airways has good archives and dedicated people combing them... they have failed to find any reference to or trace of this map. My personal best guess now is that Beck drew this map for a book about the history of Imperial Airways, probably published in the late 1940s or 1950s.

A large bi-plane on the ground, surrounded by peopler2
Passengers in the 1930s travelled around in beautiful planes like this HP42... but it's unlikely they'd have been using Beck's map back then. Image: public domain

Another clue that the map might not be quite what it seems is the line above Beck's name: 'Information correct as of 6 October 1935'. As Roberts explains: "It's quite rare for transport maps to be emblazoned with the date in the title, in fact many maps have no date anywhere, and we have to make inferences from what the maps show to date them." So yes, it's an authentic Beck, and yes, the routes are accurate, but it's possible it never existed at the same time as Imperial Airways (the airline merged with British Airways Ltd in 1939).

A key showing the frequency of various services
Image: Max Roberts/Tube Map Central

(Roberts is also keen to point out that this general style of map was not conjured out of thin air by Beck alone, but that's another story.)

Update: just after we ran this piece, this version of Beck's Imperial Airways map was brought to our attention by Chris Berry of Iconic Antiques; believed to date back to February 1933. It bears, says Berry, a pencil annotation referencing Beck, on the back. If the map is what is claims to be, that means Beck came up with the Imperial Airways design before 1935 — rather than after it — indeed in the same year he crafted his iconic version of the tube map.

Screenshot of an earlier Beck map
Image: Iconic Antiques

The full truth about this map is still out there, but what we're left with is a fascinating coming together of the nativity of long-haul flights, and the iconic panache of a great draughtsman. What a time to be alive.

Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design is available to buy.

Do you have any information on Beck's Imperial Airways map? If so do drop an email to [email protected]