Percy Shaw (15 April 1890 – 1 September 1976) was an English inventor and businessman. He patented the reflective road stud or “cat’s eye” in 1934, and set up a company to manufacture his invention in 1935. Shaw’s father had seven children by his first wife, Jane Brearley, who died in 1883. In 1892, his parents moved their large family to Boothtown in Halifax, where Shaw lived for the rest of his life.
Shaw was educated at Boothtown Board School, and started work as a labourer in a cloth mill at the age of 13. He became apprenticed to a wire drawer, but the low wages on offer were not attractive and he soon took a series of unskilled jobs in local engineering works. He was thus well placed to join his father in a new business repairing small machine tools used in munitions production during World War I. After his father’s death in 1929, he started his own small business as a road contractor, repairing roads until his death in the 1970s. Also receiving an OBE(Order of British Empire) in his later life.
Shaw was inventive, even at an early age, but his most famous invention was the cat’s eye for lighting the way along roads in the dark. In 1934, he patented his invention, based on the 1927 reflecting lens patent of Richard Hollins Murray. A year later, Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd was formed to manufacture the devices. Sales were initially slow, but approval from the Ministry of Transport and the blackout in the Second World War gave a huge boost to production and the firm, located near Shaw’s home in Boothtown, grew in size making more than a million roadstuds a year, which were exported all over the world. A later patent added a rainwater reservoir to the rubber shoe, which could be used to wash the glass “eyes” when a car drove over the stud. Such a success was the invention of the “cat’s eye” that he was rewarded with an OBE for services to exports in the birthday honours list in 1965.
He became eccentric in later life, removing the carpets and much of the furniture from his home, and keeping three televisions running constantly (respectively tuned to BBC1, BBC2 and ITV, all with the sound turned down) with a fourth BBC2 in colour. One luxury was his Rolls-Royce Phantom. He never married and he died from cancer and heart disease at Boothtown Mansion, Halifax, where he had lived for all but two of his 86 years. Despite rumours of a personal fortune, his personal estate was admitted to probate in December 1976 at a value of £193,500. He was an agnostic, but his funeral was held at Boothtown Methodist Church, and he was cremated in Elland. In 2005, he was listed as one of the 50 greatest Yorkshire people in a book by Bernard Ingham.
The cat’s eye is a retroreflective safety device used in road marking and was the first of a range of raised pavement markers. It consists (in its original form) of two pairs of glass cylinders with faces at the rear cut, moulded or ground to have three faces at (in three dimensions) 60 degrees to each other. Cat’s eyes are particularly valuable in fog and are largely resistant to damage from snow ploughs. Apart from the evident requirement for toughness, the glass has no other special qualities.
A key feature of the cat’s eye is the flexible rubber dome which is occasionally deformed by the passage of traffic. A fixed rubber wiper cleans the surface of the reflectors as they sink below the surface of the road (the base tends to hold water after a shower of rain, making this process even more efficient). The rubber dome is protected from impact damage by metal ‘kerbs’ – which also give tactile and audible feedback for wandering drivers. The name “cat’s eye” comes from Shaw’s inspiration for the device: the eyeshine reflecting from the eyes of a cat.