Percy Shaw – the Yorkshire inventor of the “Cat’s Eye”
The “Cat’s Eye” was invented in 1934 by Yorkshireman Percy Shaw and has no doubt saved thousands of lives on the roads over the years. This simple invention is still in use today and with more and more traffic on the roads, is more important than ever in defining where the centre of a road is in the dark.
Percy Shaw was born in Halifax, educated at Boothtown Board School and started work at a local cloth mill at the age of 13. After serving an apprenticeship as a wire drawer, he then entered the world of engineering in various low paid jobs, but gained enough experience to join his father’s new business repairing small machine tools at munitions factories during World War 1 and then mangles.
But when his father died in 1929, Shaw changed career and set himself up repairing roads as a road contractor. It was this career change which led to the invention which he is now famous for.
But the actual story behind the inspiration for the invention involves a hairy drive on local Yorkshire roads. Percy was driving down the Queensbury Road back to Halifax from the Dolphin Pub in Clayton Heights. Now the official story doesn’t mention alcohol, but you would imagine he may have had a pint or two! As there was a very steep drop on one side of the road, Shaw hadn’t realised he was too far over to the edge until a cat sitting on a fence by the side of the road, looked at the car and his headlights were reflected back to him.
He was able to take re-active action and avoid what could have been a fatal crash. Later in his life Shaw told many versions of this tale replacing the cat with headlights reflecting from tram tracks as an example, and strangely leaving the pub out of the story.
But whatever the truth about the incident, Percy Shaw who had always had a flair for invention set about replicating the effect of the cats eyes and realised that a glass sphere set in a casing would have a similar effect of reflecting the headlamps of a car in the dark.
In 1934 he patented his design (which had been based on a 1927 Reflecting lens patent by Richard Hollins Murray) and set about manufacturing the road studs setting up a company called Reflected Roadstud Limited. The road studs soon became nicknamed Cats eyes after the
At first sales of the Cat’s Eyes were slow, but with the black outs brought in with the advent of World War 2, the Ministry of Transport started to make large orders. Production increased exponentially and Cat’s Eyes were exported all around the world.
A later patent evolved the design so that the glass sphere sat in a rubber shoe, which collected rainwater and washed the “eye” every time a car drove over it to keep it clean.
Percy Shaw received an OBE finally in the Queen’s birthday honours list and was listed as one of the 50 Greatest Yorkshire people in a Book published in 2005 by Bernard Ingram.
In later life he became very eccentric and during an interview with Alan Whicker admitted to having four televisions in his lounge all on with different channels but the sound turned down, so he could watch them all at once! He also loved, golf, smoking his pipe and driving around Calderdale in his beloved Roll’s Royce.
He died in 1986 having never been married but his invention still lives on today saving lives and lighting up the highways.
One final addition to the story – when local councils are relaying roads – cat’s eyes are taken up and cleaned before being re-laid. I was with some clients on a tour before lockdown and we passed a sign on the road saying “Cat’s Eyes Removed”. My American guests were horrified and thought we Brits had stopped to new levels of animal cruelty with people offering this sort of service. I had to explain what Cat’s Eyes actually were and why they had been removed. There was much hilarity in the car when they realised their fears were4 unfounded!