My drive home from Comms Towers takes in the Tour de France route. Now of course many will be rejoicing in the eyes of the world upon our fair county of Essex but I couldn’t help think of another pair of eyes, countless pairs in fact.
Due to the impending wheels of Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish et al many of the cat’s eyes have been lifted from our roads. I often centre on the technology behind things and this led me to take a minute to think about the technology behind this. No not the actual lifting rather the innovation of the cat’s eyes themselves.
As often is the way when something is no longer there you often notice it more and so it was with the cat’s eyes. What a simple yet remarkable thing they are. So with that in mind I thought I would turn the spotlight on Mr Percy Shaw and his invention.
Owning his own road repair contracting company Shaw knew the precarious nature of driving on our roads in the 1930s (have they changed much?). The original idea came to our intrepid inventor in 1933 when the tram-lines he had used to navigate himself home from his local pub, the Old Dolphin in Queensbury in Halifax, West Yorkshire at night were removed. Realising that a cat’s eye reflected in his headlights gave birth to a solution and also a name for his impending invention.
A lot of trial and error ensued to recreate the cat’s eye. The answer came by covering an iron shoe like container in rubber and imbedding two beaded reflectors. This wasn’t where the ingenious creation ended, he also made sure that they didn’t need cleaning; cleverly when a car drove over it the rubber gave slightly and trapped rainwater would push against the beads and wipe them clean.
His invention was patented in 1934 (patent No. 436,290 and 457,536) and a new company, Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd formed in 1935 to manufactured the ‘Cat’s Eye’s; based of course in Halifax. Then Roads Minister, Jim Callaghan ordered them to be introduced to British roads in 1947. Shaw’s company would eventually export his invention all over the world.
In 2001 they were voted the greatest design of the 20th Century. However for all of his achievements it is his unassuming lifestyle I found most beguiling. He lived in the same family house that he lived with his parents from the age of 2 until his death aged 86 in 1976. Stripped bare, without carpets or curtains his three televisions were on constantly and tuned to BBC1, BBC 2 and ITV respectively.
This would imply that he was venturing into Howard Hughes hermit territory. Not so. By all accounts he enjoyed the fairer sex and socializing with his mates down at the Old Dolphin. Many times the party would end at Shaw’s with the wrestling on one of the televisions, beer aplenty and bags of crisps were the feature of the buffet.
One great luxury that he did permit himself was a Rolls Royce Phantom. Come on what is not to like about the illuminating Mr Percy Shaw? He saved countless lives, he liked a pint of ale or two (there is a public house in Halifax named after him), loved his TV, was awarded an OBE in 1965, earned a fortune and his invention is on every road; except of course when the Tour de France enters your town!
Until next timeSteve Wilkin