Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Visualization myths: Henry Beck and the London Underground map

Human nature dictates that whenever we group, we start devising a shared identity, bonding around imaginary heroes, myths, and legends. Visualization, infographics, and data journalism aren't exceptions. Years ago, I wrote about the myths surrounding John Snow's undeniable achievements, and I often need to point out that most visualizations that look very innovative have precedents. It happened just yesterday with one of my graphics. Perhaps it's because I've always been skeptical of nationalisms and other strong identities that I prefer my myths and heroes to exist exclusively in the movies and novels I enjoy watching and reading.

This morning I discovered another possible myth. I guess you're all familiar with Henry Beck's 1933 London Underground map. We've learned that it's a landmark in the history of information design thanks to books, articles, and talks (including mine), but it turns out that the story is —as it often happens— much more complicated and enthralling, as information designer Douglas Rose reminds us in this article. Rose is quite convincing when arguing that Beck was likely inspired by George Dow, an employee of the London & North Eastern Railway.

Here's a 1929 map by Dow which straightens out the lines and evens out distances between stations:

Another paper I've found, which also analyzes Beck's diagram, suggests that not even the idea of expanding the area of central London was entirely his, but was based on the work of designer F.H. Stingemore, who drew some early underground maps. Facts like these don't diminish the importance of Beck's diagram —he did bring together several influences, and came up with ideas of his own— but they put it in context.

Douglas Rose recommends a book by George Dow's son, Andrew. It's titled Telling the Passenger Where to Get Off: George Dow and the Development of the Diagrammatic Railway Map; I've just ordered it: