Percy Shaw: the inventor who had his eyes on the road


This is a story about a dark Yorkshire road and a bright Yorkshireman: Percy Shaw.

It’s a story about ingenuity, hard work and perseverance.

But most of all, it’s a story about how a chance encounter with a cat led to one of the most important road safety innovations ever seen.

Seeing in the dark

Percy Shaw was born in Boothtown, then a village near Halifax in Yorkshire, in 1890.

As one of ten children, Percy was always looking for ways to support his family.

He and his father used to make money, alongside their day jobs, by repairing mangles (big mechanical contraptions for drying clothes).

As Percy grew older, he took on a number of different jobs, making wires and knives for looms, learning to weld and build machine-tools. In one job, Percy found himself in a carpet factory, where he invented a way to use rubber backings to stick the carpets down – foreshadowing the foam-backed carpets we know today.

But this wasn’t to be the invention that made his name.

That came about one night on a dark and dangerous stretch of road near Halifax. Percy was on his usual route home, when he realised he couldn’t see the side of the road.

Normally he would follow the lines of the tram track to keep himself within the line of the road. But on this occasion, the tramlines had been dug up for repair – leaving Percy in darkness.

It was at this moment, the story goes, that he spotted the flash from the eyes of a cat sitting by the side of the road.

The cat’s eyes in the darkness helped Percy to orientate himself, and he narrowly avoided crashing down the steep roadside drop.

This was his Eureka moment. Percy was inspired to create a reflective marker that would mark out the side of the road – doing exactly what the cat’s eyes had done for him.

Creating a reflector

So Percy began a lengthy process of invention and re-invention. He decided to use a glass bead inside a rubber pocket to form his very own cat’s eye.

But the process of making it work was very difficult. He tested out various types of glass in different shapes, struggling to find a resilient filling to hold it in the roadway. 

He even had to design his own testing equipment – a process we can relate to at SMLL!

Eventually, he crafted his perfect cat’s eye.

When a vehicle drove over the reflector, the rubber and glass beads were pushed down below the road surface, so it wouldn’t damage or be damaged by the cars on the road.

It was also self-cleaning – the iron case filled with rainwater, which would squirt over the glass bead and keep it shiny.

‘The most brilliant invention ever produced’

1935 Percy set up Reflecting Roadstuds Limited, and applied to register the word ‘cat’s eye’ as a trade mark – which is still in force today.  

For a long time, he struggled to find commercial success with his cat’s eye. However, when World War II brought the blackout, the reflectors proved so successful that the junior transport minister Jim Callaghan introduced them across Britain’s road network.

In the House of Commons, the cat’s eye was described as ‘The most brilliant invention ever produced in the interests of road safety’. Then, in 1965, Percy was awarded an OBE.

Think about last time you took a journey at night. Did you see the cat’s eyes glinting at the side of the road? I bet you did – and you’ve got Percy Shaw to thank for it.

From cat’s eyes to CAV’s eyes

At SMLL, we’re trying to understand what the future of mobility looks like. And it’s possible that this future won’t include the cat’s eye.

Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) are able to ‘see’ the road ahead without needing any visuals, since they constantly receive a stream of updates about what’s going on around them.

Plus CAVs can connect to mapping services which keep them on the right path, no matter how dark it is.

So in the years ahead we won’t need cat’s eyes – just CAV’s eyes.

This is how the cycle of innovation works. Things are always changing, moving and improving.

Percy Shaw himself would have been proud to see this. Today’s wave of mobility technology is making life on the road far safer for passengers and drivers than ever before – which was the exact sentiment behind the cat’s eye.

Percy Shaw is a huge inspiration for us as we seek to bring about safer and more-joined up transport systems in the UK.

As far as innovators go, Percy was a man with his eyes firmly fixed on the road – the road of progress.

Don’t forget to check out the last instalment in the Innovator series, where we looked at Mary Elizabeth Anderson – the inventor of the windscreen wiper.