The curiously named cat’s eyes are one of the most ubiquitous road safety instruments on our roads today. They are the angular little gray metal things that protrude in the middle of roads and highways. In the evening, they bounce off a bright reflection when hit by headlights that is more or less akin to a pair of glowing feline eyes.
Cat’s eyes serve as a guide that leads motorists where to drive or which side of the lane they should stay. They are most useful at night, especially during foggy nights or in places where there are no street lights.
Back in the olden days when cat’s eyes were not yet invented, drivers had to make do with their headlights to figure out what was in front of them. While largely useful, this method was a challenging one.
This difficulty was experienced by Percy Shaw himself, who would later be credited for having invented cat’s eyes. A native of Yorkshire in the UK, Shaw came from a huge family and had 13 other siblings. Prior to the onset of World War II, he held numerous odd jobs in order to earn a living, including a stint as a road mender.
Living in Boothtown, Shaw usually went to the nearby village of Queensbury to grab some drinks at a local pub called Old Dolphin. One foggy night in 1933, as he was driving back home, he found that he couldn’t see the road ahead of him, even if his headlights were turned on.
To make things worse, the road was steep and had a lot of twisting turns. In this state of darkness, Shaw continued driving until he saw a pair of glowing lights in the dark; this is when he stopped driving. Such lights turned out to be a cat’s eyes, which reflected the light from his car. Getting off from his car, he realized he was driving in the wrong direction. He also discovered that had he continued driving, he would have fallen over the edge of the road.
Ever the enterprising man that he was, Shaw took inspiration from this incident to design what would later turn out to be cat’s eyes. His design incorporated an iron base, as well as a rubber insert for the glass reflector. This design allowed the cat’s eyes to withstand enormous pressure from nature and the rushing vehicles.
However, it wasn’t after a decade since he had patented his design did Shaw achieve success as the inventor of cat’s eyes. The UK government endorsed this product for use with British road markings, creating an enormous demand for it. At one point, Shaw’s company was producing at least a million cat’s eyes every year for both domestic use and export to other countries.
To this day, the usefulness of Shaw’s cat eyes endures. In fact, 99 percent of roads in the UK are installed with cat’s eyes. This practical road safety innovation has no doubt been instrumental in curbing road mishaps — an innovation that came about as the result of a providential foggy evening and a helpful cat sitting by the side of a road.