UK: Business legends - The guiding light in traffic safety.

UK: Business legends - The guiding light in traffic safety. - Percy Shaw hardly seemed destined for a life of greatness, but a late-night incident on the Yorkshire roads inspired him to invent and sell the Catseye.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Percy Shaw hardly seemed destined for a life of greatness, but a late-night incident on the Yorkshire roads inspired him to invent and sell the Catseye.

Edison had his light bulb, Ford, the people's car, and Nobel, dynamite.

But these men, though linked in the public imagination with a single idea, are recognised as prolific inventors whose greatest achievements were merely the tips of their respective icebergs. Percy Shaw, by contrast, was a man whose greatest invention was his only invention. Had it not been for the events of a foggy night, he would probably have led a wholly unremarkable life.

Born in 1890 near Halifax, Shaw grew up in the kind of respectable poverty that seems de rigueur for industrial icons. The young Percy left school at 13 and, following a series of dead-end jobs and an uninspiring apprenticeship, went into partnership with Shaw Sr as a mechanical handyman. By 1930, Shaw Jr was laying driveways (a rather more respectable calling back then) and heading up the household. Although he appeared to be cruising comfortably into middle age, his defining moment was not far off.

Shaw was a bit of a motoring enthusiast, daily driving the often treacherous Halifax-Bradford road in his native Yorkshire. In the frequently misty weather, when headlamps were near useless, he would rely on the steel tram rails set in the asphalt to guide him. The (one suspects, possibly apocryphal) tale of Shaw's epiphany is as follows: it was a foggy night and, travelling this route, Shaw came to a corner where the rails had been removed for repairs. Deprived of his navigational aid, he steered towards a precipice; luckily, a cat was sitting on a nearby wall. The reflection of his headlamps in its eyes alerted him to his error and he swerved away, narrowly missing a date with the Reaper.

Shaw had, quite literally, seen the light, and from this point onwards was a man obsessed with the idea of replicating the life-saving moggy's gaze for the benefit of all motorists. He scoured Europe, looking for a type of glass that would withstand repeated vehicular poundings, eventually finding it in Czechoslovakia. He made a proto-Catseye which, with its top-mounted glass beads, proved suitable only for aircraft. Back at the drawing board, he moved the beads to the side, all the while experimenting with angles, colours, and reflective backings. Finally, with a bespoke mancunian-made rubber pad and a homemade cast-iron anchor, Shaw had the mark II Catseye.

Posing as council workmen, Shaw and members of staff would dig up various Yorkshire interchanges by night and test the invention, returning to the factory each morning to tweak them. However, there was one final major hurdle - after a couple of encounters with vehicles, the glass would become dirty and the Catseye useless. The crusading Shaw, now scenting victory, ingeniously redesigned the rubber pad so that, when depressed by a car, a rubber wipe would clean the gems. In 1934, he patented his idea and triumphantly presented it to several local authorities.

All but one said no. The exception was the West Riding of Yorkshire, which graciously allowed Shaw to demonstrate the device at his own expense.

Local bigwigs were impressed, but not impressed enough to reach for their wallets; Shaw's initial order was for a mere 36 Catseyes and his factory lay idle. The determined Percy persevered and was eventually rewarded when, in 1937, the Catseye was tested against a variety of competitors and established itself as the official road reflector of choice.

It took the second world war and its blackouts for drivers to realise the true merit of the device. Orders flooded in and Shaw was summoned to Whitehall to discuss upping capacity. Even this success was short-lived, however, as Japanese action in Malaysia cut off rubber supplies for several years. But once the war was over, this shy, retiring Yorkshireman found himself a celebrity. He met the then Princess Elizabeth, the Commons hailed him as a hero of the highways, and, in 1947, he was selected by the BBC as one of the 'most notable northern personalities of the year'.

As the sole supplier of a product whose immense value had - rather belatedly - been recognised, Shaw had it made. His business grew apace, although its product remained fundamentally unchanged. Shaw, who in his later years resembled a rather dumpy Kojak, likewise changed little, despite a considerable fortune and an OBE for services to exports. A lifelong bachelor, his only real trapping of wealth was a Rolls-Royce which he bought as an example of engineering excellence. He died in 1976, aged 86, but his company, the charmingly literal Reflecting Roadstuds Limited, remains in Halifax to this day. Under the control of his nephews, it manufactures around 30,000 of the upper rubber pads per week. Although very few of them are now sold abroad, motorists worldwide owe a debt of gratitude to Percy Shaw, the Yorkshire fog and a long-dead but well-placed cat.

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