Said to be inspired by the sight of his car head lamps reflected in the eyes of a cat on a dark, foggy night, PERCY SHAW (1890-1976) invented the Catseye reflective road marker. Manufactured by the company founded by Shaw in his hometown of Halifax, Yorkshire, millions of Catseyes have been installed in roads all over the world.
The romantic version of the story of how the Yorkshire road mender Percy Shaw invented the Catseye is that one foggy night in 1933 he was driving back to his home in the Boothtown area of Halifax from nearby Bradford when he hit a perilous stretch of road with a sheer drop down a hillside to the right of the road.
Drivers like Shaw usually depended on the reflection of their car headlights in tram tracks to guide them along the road, but the tracks had been removed for repair. It was so dark and foggy that Shaw could not see where the road ended and the hillside began, until suddenly he spotted in the darkness the reflections of his car headlamps in the eyes of a cat sitting by the road. It is then that he is said to have hit upon the idea for replicating the reflection of a cat’s eyes to guide drivers along dark and dangerous roads.
Percy Shaw sometimes told a more pedestrian version of the story in which his inspiration came from spotting reflective road markers beside a road. Whatever the truth, he realised that as more and more Britons were starting to drive in the 1930s they needed reflective road markers to help them to find their way at night. Children all over the world have since been told the romantic version of his invention of the Catseye to teach them that inspiring ideas can strike at any time and that if they are shrewd enough to patent and manufacture their ideas, they can become very wealthy like Percy Shaw.
Born in 1890 in the Lee Mount area of Halifax, Shaw was one of fourteen children. Their father, Jimmy, was a dyer’s labourer who struggled to support his family on a ￡1 weekly wage from a local textile mill. The family moved to Boothtown when Shaw was two. He and his siblings earned money by selling vegetables from their garden. Shaw left school at 13 and had a series of odd jobs, eventually running a blacksmith’s forge with his father. Even as a child he loved inventing things, notably games. As an adult his inventions ranged from backing carpets with rubber, to an unsuccessful attempt to design a petrol pump. By the early 1930s Shaw had set up a business to repair roads, paths and pavements using a mechanical roller he had made from an old Ford engine and three lorry wheels.
Having hit upon the idea of inventing a reflective road marker, Shaw spent several years developing it. His challenge was to create a device which would be bright enough illuminate the roads for drivers at night, but would work in all weathers and be robust enough to cope with cars and trucks driving on top of it. To make matters even more complicated, as the markers would be installed in thousands of miles of road the need for maintenance had to be minimised.
Shaw’s eventual design consisted of four glass beads placed in two pairs facing in opposite directions, embedded within a flexible rubber moulding which was mounted on a cast iron base. The device was buried in the road and fixed in position with asphalt. When vehicles drove over the dome the rubber contracted and the glass beads dropped safely beneath the road surface. Aiming for minimal maintenance, Shaw even devised a way for his Catseyes to clean themselves. The cast iron base collected rain water and whenever the top of the dome was depressed, the rubber would wash rainwater across the glass beads to clear away any dust or grime that had gathered there, just as the human eye can be cleansed by tears.
The patent for the Catseye was registered in 1934 and, the following year, Shaw set up a company called Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd to manufacture his invention. He founded the company with ￡500 of capital and opened a factory beside his home in Boothtown. In 1936 Shaw conducted a public experiment at his own expense by installing fifty Catseyes on a dangerous stretch of road outside Bradford. The number of accidents on the road fell sharply and local drivers attributed this to the visibility provided by Shaw’s road markers.
Concerned about the growing number of night-time road accidents, the Department for Transport staged a competition in 1937 to find a robust road reflector. Percy Shaw won the competition with the Catseye after rival models either broke during the trial or were deemed to be ineffective. Nonetheless Reflecting Roadstuds found it difficult to drum up orders until World War II when driving at night became even more perilous because of the government-imposed blackouts to thwart German bombers. The company accelerated its expansion after the the war and eventually occupied a 20 acre site in Boothtown. At its peak it employed 130 people to manufacture over a million Catseyes a year for export all over the world.
By enabling motorists to drive more safely at night, Shaw’s invention is credited with having saved many thousands of people from death or injury in accidents. Reflecting Roadstuds diversified into other road products but Catseyes continued to represent the bulk of its business. Percy Shaw and his colleagues refined the original design over the years to take advantage of the availability of new materials and production processes. He and his company remained in Boothtown, where Shaw lived until his death in 1976 as a much admired, if eccentric local figure. He disdained carpets, curtains and other comforts for his home, but parked a pair of Rolls-Royces outside and stocked the cellar with crates of Worthington’s White Shield, his favourite beer.
Florence Edwards, Catseyes: Biography of Percy Shaw, Blackwell Publishers, 1972
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