Category: History



Harry Beck really started something. His elegant map of the London Underground (which is more of a diagram than a map) set the style of the modern subway guide. It’s designed to help people use the network. To show them clearly how to get from A to B, and make the correct connections. Beck aimed to strike a balance between a clear system diagram and the geography. This involved making some compromises with the distances between stations and their relative positions, and enlarging the center area where so many lines intersect. The first map printed in a large quantity (1933) is shown above. It was produced first as a folding, pocket-size map (shown here), and soon followed by a poster-size version. The design allowed for future expansion of the network.

The 1932 map (below) that preceded Beck’s was by F. H. Stingemore who designed the map from 1925 to 1932. The central area in the Stingemore map was slightly exaggerated and the outer stations were listed at the edges of the map. Beck’s redesign was a radical departure.

A rough drawing from 1931 shows Beck’s initial plan for his more diagrammatic map. He was an engineering draughtsman, not a graphic designer, so he looked at the project like an electrical circuit diagram.

A presentation version (1931) was rejected at first, but the following year was the basis for a test run of 500 copies. At this point, Beck was still using circles for most of the stations. He switched to tick marks in the 1933 version.

The current map is a lot more complicated with fare zones and additional subway lines.

The distortion from actual relationships to the diagrammatic map is shown in this animation. By Pham_Trinli.

In 2015, Transport for London released a more geographically-correct map that could be a real help for walkers, bikers etc. It was forced into the public area by a Freedom of Information request. Click on the image for a pdf version.

Earlier this month, Transport for London published a map for people who don’t like to be inside a tunnel, showing where the trains are actually underground. Despite the name of the system, 55% of it is above ground. Click on the image for a pdf version.



The atomic age lasted through the 1950s and 1960s. It was a time of two opposite dynamics: there was the promise of unlimited power, and the threat of world destruction.

The dream Some examples of atomic optimism. Does the dog look worried?

Nuclear playtime
An atomic lab in your child’s bedroom? Why not?

5,000 miles per charge The 1958 Ford Nucleon was a prototype car that would be powered by a small nuclear reactor. Perhaps.

Built in Brussels for the 1958 World’s Fair, this is a very large model of the unit cell of an iron crystal (magnified 165 billion times). It’s 335 feet tall (102 meters).

(Photograph: Mike Cattell)

Inside the top sphere there’s a restaurant with a panoramic view of the city.

World War III
There was a very real worry that buttons might be pushed. Hence the fallout shelters all over the place.

You might want to build your own in the back garden.

It looks like fun.

Some light reading before bedtime.

Painting by numbers


Years ago, before cellphones and computers, this was one of our pastimes. The current enthusiasm for adult coloring books seems to be closely related. Art made relatively easy using a simple system. It’s a low-stress activity with tangible results. Here are a couple of sets I purchased recently on eBay.

Mona Lisa (Shown above.) This one is on canvas for complete authenticity. Note the handy reference pic. Everything needed is here: A numbered keyline to follow, paintbrushes, and a set of acrylic paints with corresponding numbers. I need to start filling in the areas, but it looks quite challenging. The estimated value of the original painting is $1.5 billion. My Mona Lisa cost just $16.59 (with free shipping).

The Starry Night I’m going post-impressionist with this one.

Lines on a board, ready to become art. Presumably, this is not how Van Gogh planned the painting.

A detail. For areas with two numbers, the colors have to be mixed together. Fortunately, blending between the color areas is not suggested. Some sets that I had years ago (with oil-based paints) offered that additional task. The edges that were to get a smooth transition were indicated by dashed lines.

The required paints. Reeves has a numbered system that works across all their painting by numbers sets. No number one (lemon yellow) here.

In the gallery Andy Warhol’s 1962 “Do It Yourself” series is a tribute to the “painting by numbers” craze.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Two posts about In Graphics, a brilliant magazine where all the pages are infographics. Below, staff at Infographics Group in Berlin review proofs of the new issue (number ten).

Flap books


The Human Head, by Dr. Ergo, 1913. All the examples in this post are from Professor Michael Stoll’s superb collection of historical information graphics, which I’ve featured a number of times before.

Below, the Practical Engineer, by Gustav Ripke, 1905.

Steam and Electricity Technology at the Beginning of the 20th Century, 1903, contains a steam engine diagram with moving paper parts.

New Natural Treatments for Animals, by Dr. Knoll, 1923.

Botany for Everyone, by Ferruccio Rizzatti, 1923.

The KDF-Wagen, 1939. A clever look inside the first Volkswagen Beetle using clear plastic sheets with opaque elements. We’re looking up from under the car on the left-hand page, and from above it on the right-hand page. It was published as a supplement for an issue of a magazine, “Motor Schau”.

Previously featured gems from Michael Stoll’s collection:



Classic comparison By George Woolworth Colton, 1849. Click on the image for a larger version. (From the David Rumsey Map Collection, where a very high resolution image can be downloaded:

Seven summits The tallest peak in each continent, by Audree Lapierre of FFunction.

Mountain charts The peaks and valleys leading up to, and immediately following, the 2008 financial collapse, by Michael Najjar. Real data plots converted into mountainous landscapes. Below, Lehman Brothers share price, 1992–2008.

Mountain charts The peaks and valleys leading up to the 2008 financial collapse, by Michael Najjar. Real data plots made into mountainous landscapes. Above, Lehman Brothers share price, 1992–2008.

Dow Jones Industrial Average, 1980–2009.

Nasdaq Composite, 1980–2009.

Skiing Alpine ski maps are not an exact depiction of a particular area. The view is altered, so although it looks similar to reality, the individual ski trails are clear.

James Niehues has made maps of many U.S. ski resorts. They’re all hand-crafted with paintbrush and airbrush.
Below is an example of his work. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (California), shown without labels.

And with skiing information added.

Florida I stayed at a hotel in Orlando, and from the window of my room on the 20th floor, I could clearly see a snow-capped peak rising above the subtropical greenery. It was Everest Expedition at Disney World. It’s only 199 feet high, but Florida is very flat. The real Mt. Everest reaches 29,029 ft (8,848 meters). Apart from the height, another big difference is that the Everest in the Himalayas does not have a roller coaster ride inside it. The Disney World website states: “Careen through the Himalayan mountains on a speeding train while avoiding the clutches of the mythic Abominable Snowman.”

Above, Expedition Everest. (Photograph by Benjamin D.Esham.)
Below, the real Mount Everest. (Photograph by Pavel Novak.)

The high points compared.





Semaphore I learned this message system when I was a Cub Scout a very long time ago. There were three boys in a team. One boy to send the signals using two flags, one to read the incoming signals, and one to record the received message. Other requirements were: A lot of patience, and binoculars if the distance required them. (In our case, the communicators were on each side of a small field, and could have shouted the message, but that’s missing the point.) Remember, the cellphone did not exist. Semaphore’s golden age was back in the 19th century when it was used extensively for communicating between ships. It still has some maritime uses today.

We may have looked something like this.

And, of course, after becoming masters of semaphore, we all earned a badge.

This 1940s U.S. Navy cardboard wheel helped sailors use semaphore. One side for sending, the other for receiving.

Help!: The photographer for this Beatles’ album cover, Robert Freeman, wanted the band to spell out the album title in semaphore, but he didn’t like their arm positions (aesthetically-speaking), so he went for a more pleasing arrangement. “N-U-J-V” doesn’t have quite the same impact, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone, except me and a few other ex-Scouts.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: The British comedy group included a semaphore version of Wuthering Heights in one of their T.V. shows.

Peace symbol: Designed by Gerald Holtom in 1958 for a protest march. It’s based on the semaphore positions for N and D, standing for Nuclear Disarmament.

Maritime flags These can be used in different ways. A message can be spelled out with letters, or an individual flag can be used to convey a particular message. An example: The V flag flying alone means “I require assistance”. There are also multiple flag combinations to send various designated messages. And if both parties have the same code book, encrypted messages can be sent.


When sailing the magnificent “Grimwade,” my 120-foot (37-meter) schooner, on Lake Ohio, I often hoist 24 flags to advertise to passing boats the title of my blog.

Morse code Shown under the flags in the alphabetical list above. An elegant and effective way of communicating with short and long signals, known as dots and dashes, which are transmitted with sound or light. The best-known morse code message is SOS. Three dashes, three dots, three dashes, in a continuous stream. The spoken equivalent, developed with the advent of radio, is “Mayday” derived from the French m’aidez (“help me”).

Sign language Very important for people who cannot hear, it combines hand movements with facial expressions and body postures. It is not universal, and varies between countries and regions. This is ASL: American Sign Language.

The 42nd Street globe


In the lobby of the Daily News Building, a 1930 art deco classic on New York’s 42nd Street, is a magnificent globe that’s 12 feet (3.7 meters) in diameter and rotates under a black glass ceiling. The building and lobby are sometimes cited as the inspiration for the Daily Planet newspaper in the Superman comic series. This idea was supported by the fact that the building (and the globe) featured in the 1978 Superman movie (below).

However, the source for the Daily Planet headquarters was the Old Toronto Star Building (below). Superman co-creator Joe Shuster once worked for the Toronto Daily Star as a newspaper boy, and in the early Superman comics the newspaper where Clark Kent worked was called The Daily Star.

Back to New York City: The Daily News Building’s lobby has meteorological instruments, and clocks with the time in various international cities. The globe is the center of a vast imaginary diagram. There are statements positioned around it with the distances to planets and stars expressed as the distances to landmarks, if the Sun was shrunk to the same size of the globe. So then the Earth would be at Grand Central Station, just down the street (and quite small), and Alpha Centuari would be 68,000 miles away. I love a solar model, as this previous post pointed out:

The South Pole is reflected in a mirror.

This relative-size graphic of big globes appeared in a post about another (and much bigger) NYC globe, the Unisphere: 

Photographs by Michael Stoll.

Less but better


For forty years, the iconic German designer applied his careful, minimalist aesthetic to the Braun product line. His work has been a considerable (and recognized) influence on Jonathan Ive, who is the Chief Design Officer of Apple, and the connection is easy to see.

The SK4 is known as “Snow White’s coffin”, a reference to its transparent plexiglass lid. The nickname was coined by Braun’s competitors. This radio/record player, called a “Phonosuper” by Braun, was designed in 1956.

Rough concept drawings (below) by Rams.

By the way, I’m wearing this watch while writing this post.

Dieter Ram’s ten design principles.

Good design:
1. is innovative.
2. makes a product useful.
3. is aesthetic.
4. makes a product understandable.
5. is unobtrusive.
6. is honest.
7. is long-lasting.
8. is thorough down to the last detail.
9. is environmentally friendly.
10. involves as little design as possible.

A good Dieter Rams resource:

Tools of the trade (3)


Colored pencils A blast of color when you open the lid. I’m still using a set of these, and often replacing the blue ones. Not sure what the significance of that is, but my therapist is helping me sort that out.

Flexible curve Good in theory, but difficult to hold to an exact line. Fun to bend around though.

Paintbrushes It’s always worth paying for good brushes. I once bought a cheap set, and they left a trail of hairs wherever I used them. It was a false economy.

Registration marks In the mechanical artwork years, I used a shocking amount of these. They were adhesive-backed, and came in rolls. Three were needed on every single overlay.

Transfer paper For putting a pencil drawing onto line board to be inked in. Works surprisingly well.

Spray glue The air in the studio was sometimes quite intoxicating, a heady mixture of Spray Mount and Magic Marker fumes. Perhaps I hallucinated my way through all those pre-computer graphics. I seem to remember that I smiled a lot during those years. That is certainly not the case now.

Magic Markers Happy days. See above.

Solvent dispenser Filled with Bestine solvent (see previous tools post). We were squirting solvent left, right and center.

Grant Projector Every studio in the U.K. had one of these substantial items. For enlarging and reducing images optically, as there were no copiers with exact sizing capability in those days. I spent a lot of time with my head stuck inside the top part, and it could get quite warm.

Drafting table Fitted with a parallel motion. Bottle of ink + angled desktop = problems.

Adjustable set square For precise angles. I liked adjusting it more than using it.

Flat files Where the artwork (good and bad) lived. Made out of steel. Weighed a ton.

Previous “Tools of the trade” posts:
Part 1:
Part 2: