Jim Rees tells the story of Percy Shaw, the inventor of ‘Cats’ Eyes’
Aren’t reflecting roadstuds wonderful? Never heard of them? Neither had I until I came to write this article. What if I called them cats’ eyes, those glass balls set into road surfaces which reflect a car’s headlights at night?
Percy Shaw came from a working class family, and had finished formal education by the age of thirteen. His father, James, was married twice, having seven children with his first wife, Jane. When Jane died in 1883, James married Esther Morrell.
Born in Halifax, Yorkshire in 1890, Percy was the fourth child and second son of this second marriage. Two years later the family moved to nearby Boothtown and that was where Percy would spend the rest of his life.
Money was in short supply, so when Percy reached the age of thirteen he started work as a labourer in a local mill. He was ambitious enough to see the advantages of learning a trade and started an apprenticeship as a wire-drawer, a skilled job producing specific gauges of wires for specific tasks. The problem was the low wages an apprentice was paid, and so he turned his back on the long-term advantages for short-term better pay as an ordinary factory hand.
During the First World War, he worked with his father repairing small machine tools in a munitions factory. When his father died, the 39-year-old Percy set up in business as a road repair contractor.
The story goes that Percy Shaw was driving along a dark, twisting road, unable to see the fence which separated it from a steep slope. Luckily, a cat was perched on it and when it looked at the approaching headlights, the beams were reflected in the cat’s eyes, and he avoided going over the edge.
It’s a nice story, but Percy gave at least two other versions at different times. He told the television traveller and interviewer, Alan Whicker, that it was the reflective material on road signs that gave him the idea of embedding something similar into the road surface.
In another version it was the reflection from the friction-polished top surface of tram tracks that did the trick. Whatever the origin, Percy Shaw was just the man to act on it.
He experimented with different materials and found that glass balls were just the ticket and he patented his invention in 1934. The following year he set up Reflecting Roadstuds Limited to make them. Road authorities should have been queuing up for them, but that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until the outbreak of the Second World War that Percy’s cats’ eyes came into their own. When blackouts were introduced in a bid to hamper air raids, street lighting was forbidden. This, of course, made driving at night extremely hazardous.
It was bad enough that headlights should be enclosed so that only a minimum of illumination of the road surface was possible. Roadstuds addressed the problem perfectly and their production was stepped up almost as much as the production of munitions.
The factory was located in Shaw’s hometown of Boothtown. Increased demand meant increased employment, producing over a million glass studs each year. Shaw was a local hero.
There was one slight problem. The roadstuds quickly became coated with mud and dirt, so that within a short time their reflective quality grew dimmer and dimmer.
How could this be overcome? Council’s couldn’t afford to have employees giving every set of cats’ eyes a spit-and-polish every few days.
Again, Percy came up with a simple, cheap solution. He redesigned the casing with a small reservoir of rainwater and softer, more flexible rubber.
This meant that cars passing over the device would depress the glass studs into the reservoir, giving them a quick bath.
Like many great inventors, Percy Shaw doesn’t seem to have been too concerned about personal wealth. Logic would suggest that he made millions from his invention. If he did, he certainly didn’t flaunt it. He lived modestly, even eccentrically.
In later life, he even stripped his house of its carpets and furniture. His one indulgence was television. He kept four sets turned on permanently, one for each of the main British stations (BBC1, BBC2, ITV and a special one for BBC2 colour programmes) – all with the sound turned down!
When he died forty years ago last month, September 1976, he left an estate of £193,500. While not exactly on his uppers, it seems strange that it wasn’t at least ten times – or even a hundred times – that amount!