You may not recognize the name Percy Shaw, but if you used a public roadway today, chances are you’re already familiar with Shaw’s gift to the world–the reflective “cat’s eye” road stud. Road studs are the reflective lenses lining the pavement on major roads and highways.
As a child, Shaw had a knack for tinkering, and loved inventing things, most notably games. As an adult his inventions ranged from rubber carpet backings to an unsuccessful attempt at a petrol pump. Shaw’s most famous invention, however, came about in 1934.
So what compelled Shaw to invent reflective road studs? One version of the story claims the inventor was inspired by a nighttime drive. As Shaw traversed an especially challenging roadway in darkness of night, the headlights of his car reflected back off the eyes of a cat perched on a roadside fence. The reflection from the cat’s eyes helped Shaw identify the edge of the road, and prevented him from driving off onto the berm. This encounter prompted him to begin development of a reflective road stud. He received a patent for his invention in 1936.
Based on Shaw’s design, the pressure of a car rolling over the stud forces the reflective lens into a rubber housing. Once the car had passed, the lens pops out again. Over the years, the design of road studs has been tinkered with and improved. A recent alteration included the addition of a rainwater reservoir to the rubber shoe of the road stud. When a car drives over the stud, the glass eye is “washed” by the collected rainwater.
After patenting the road stud, Percy Shaw formed Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd., to manufacture the devices. Initially sales were slow, but approval from Britain’s Ministry of Transport and mandatory WWII blackouts were the boost road reflectors needed to send demand and production through on the rise. Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd. began manufacturing more than a million reflectors per year, exporting the devices around the globe.
Despite his success, Shaw became quite eccentric in his later life, removing the carpeting and much of the furniture from his home. He also reportedly kept three televisions running constantly, set to BBC1, BBC2 and ITV—all on mute. His one indulgence was a Rolls-Royce Phantom.