There are millions of ‘cat’s eyes’ on the roads of Britain; a simple but very effective device; and one that has had a significant effect on road safety.
It was Yorkshireman Percy Shaw, who patented the device in 1934. His inspiration for the invention has more than one story. One is that he used to navigate in the dark by following the reflection of his headlights on tram tracks; the other that he was driving home from the pub one night and narrowly missed running over a cat when he suddenly saw the reflection of his lights in the cat’s eyes! I much prefer the second story.
An engineering apprentice, Percy joined his father’s company repairing machine tools during the First World War. Using the skills he learned he later set up his own company to start manufacturing the eyes in 1935. He named it ‘Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd.’ – catchy title eh?
The ingenious device consisted of two pairs of reflecting studs. These were housed in a protective rubber dome set into a cast iron housing. An earlier invention from Richard Hollins Murray was the inspiration for the device; he had used them in advertising signs. When passing traffic pressed down the rubber dome, a fixed rubber wiper cleaned the lenses. This was aided by left-over rainwater which could remain in the small reservoir below.
The cat’s eyes were not an immediate success. It took the World War II blackouts to bring about their widespread use; when drivers needed guidance to navigate poorly lit roads. After the war, their road safety value was fully recognised; and they began to appear not just all over the roads of Britain, but all over the world.
Percy later received an OBE in recognition of his invention, which is now in common use. You will even see them in multi-colour varieties on dual-carriageways and motorways.
He died in 1976, having become something of an eccentric recluse. Despite his wealth, Percy lived in a bare and almost empty house. His only luxury was the Rolls Royce which he’d treated himself to and four TVs which were apparently all on at the same; but showing different channels. He was still honoured and recognised for his achievement however; with his name appearing on a blue plaque in his home town of Halifax, and also with a pub bearing his name.