Stories of innovation: Cat's eye

What: The cat’s eye

Who: Eccentric English inventor and businessman Percy Shaw

When: 1933

The story: Born in a small West Yorkshire town in 1890, Percy Shaw left school at age 13 to take a job in an office as a book-keeper. He soon realised that advancing in this field would be slow (and incredibly boring) so he quit and started doing odd-jobs and repairs. He eventually moved into the field of road and path surfacing when motor vehicles began to be more commonplace in his area. Like most young men, Shaw enjoyed a beer or eight after a hard day’s work but unfortunately for him, his favourite pub was situated a few miles from his home town. He would drive to the pub in his new car but found it incredibly difficult to navigate at night after the tramlines which reflected his headlights were removed. As the tale goes, one foggy night as he was making the journey, he stopped abruptly after the lights from his car were reflected in the eyes of a cat crossing the road. Luckily, this alerted him to the fact that he had been driving on the wrong side!

Inspired by the event, he spent his spare time developing a device which would sit deep in the centre of the road and reflect light from oncoming traffic via two glass spheres. He aptly called them ‘cat’s eyes’. He received patents for his invention in 1935, and despite initially slow sales, approval from the Ministry of Transport and the blackout of World War Two led to huge production increases and the mass deployment of the contraptions all over the world. He received an OBE in 1965. Shaw famously became an eccentric later in life, stripping his home of all carpet and furniture, and having four televisions constantly switched on without sound (tuned to BBC1, BBC2, ITV, and BBC2’s colour version).

Impact & legacy: Cat’s eyes now grace millions of road around the world, forming an important part of road safety in areas without street lamps, illuminating the way for drivers. On motorways, cat’s eyes are used to help drivers keep in their designated lanes, and a number of different colours are used to denote median lines and slip roads among other things. Cat’s eyes are largely resistant in fog and the fact they sink in the road means you aren’t likely to crash your car if you drive over them. 

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