Seeing the Light: A History of the Cataphote Reflector

Cataphotes, more commonly known as “cat’s eyes,” are a type of retroflective bead used in street signs to increase visibility without causing light pollution or disruption. Different variations of retroflectors have been in use on signs since the mid-1920s, and cataphote reflectors themselves introduced for the first time in 1933, in the United Kingdom.
Cataphote reflector button from 1948
The rear entrance of a cataphote reflector button. Cataphote Corporation, circa 1948.
A Full Stop sign from 1929 with cataphotes
A 1929 Niles Machine Company Full Stop sign with cat’s eyes installed for increased visibility.
These dome-shaped reflective beads were initially used as raised pavement markers on highways. As road marking devices, cat’s eyes were installed along the center of roadways so that they could reflect a path for motorists to follow in the dark or through thick fog. Cataphote reflectors along the center of a street consisted of two small beads encased in a raised rubber half-dome. Later, single-ended versions appeared on the sides of roads as well, alerting drivers to the outer limits of the highway.
Wooden guardrails with cat’s eyes in 1948
Wooden guardrails equipped with Cataphote reflector. SignPost, circa 1948.
Reflective center lane markers on highway
Glass beads on center lane markers keep late-night highway drivers safe and focused.
The inventor of cat’s eyes, Percy Shaw, was an English businessman and road contractor from Halifax, West Yorkshire. After the nearby suburb of Ambler Thorn removed its tram-lines, Shaw realized that he had been using the polished steel strips’ reflectivity to guide his car along the roads at night. Their shiny lacquer had been incredibly useful, reflecting Shaw’s automobile headlights, guiding him along the dark streets. Without the tram tracks, Shaw had difficulty navigating the roads after sundown.
A cataphote reflector bead
An individual cataphote reflector bead, from the SmartSign collection.
Percy Shaw drew inspiration from the absence of the once-useful inlaid steel and saw an opportunity to improve driver safety and road visibility. He began searching for a more efficient reflective material to light the roads at night without glare. Shaw’s fellow Englishman, Richard Hollins Murray, had recently taken advantage of the reflective lens, which was conceived six years prior as a device to install on advertisement signs to make them more visible at night.
Diagram of cataphote reflectors; 1927
Percy Shaw’s diagram of Cat’s Eyes, as submitted for patenting in 1927.
Percy Shaw at his factory
Percy Shaw, the inventor of cataphote reflectors, stands in his Reflective Roadstuds factory.
Deriving his own version from Richard Hollins Murray’s favored reflective lens, Shaw designed the road-friendly cataphote reflector. His challenge was to create a device with maximum visibility in any weather, while minimizing its susceptibility to damage. Since cataphote reflectors would be installed in the hundreds and eventually thousands along English roads, Shaw worked to design a product that required minimal upkeep. He coined the nickname "cat’s eyes" because the device brought to mind the eyeshine, or tapetum lucidum, of feline eyes.
Safety First reflective sign over train tracks
A Safety First sign from the early 1900s, hung over railroad tracks with cataphote reflectors.
Man installing cataphote reflectors on a road
Men install cat’s eyes along a road in the early 20th century.
With a total of four glass beads set in pairs and facing opposite one another, the reflectors of the cat’s eye were encased in flexible rubber molding. The “eyes” used photolithographic technology to produce their unique concentrated reflective glare. Finally, the apparatus was mounted on a cast iron base that could be sealed into roadways with asphalt. With simplicity in mind, Shaw also crafted the cat’s eye with a self-cleaning function. As water collected in the base after a rainfall, a fixed rubber wiper on the top of the contraption would clean the surface of the reflectors each time a vehicle drove over the protective rubber shield on top. By 1934, Shaw had patented his invention. A year later, on March 15, 1935, Shaw founded his own manufacturing company in Halifax called Reflecting Roadstuds. The company trademarked the term Catseye and began to distribute the groundbreaking technology.

In 1936, Shaw’s business had yet to take off. Shaw sponsored a public experiment on a dangerous stretch of road outside of Bradford by installing fifty cataphote reflectors. Keeping track of previous years’ statistics, Shaw and his colleagues determined that the sharp decline in traffic accidents on the road could be attributed to the installation of the cat’s eyes. Nevertheless, it still took several years for Shaw’s invention to fall into the public eye.
Stimsonite cataphote reflector; 1927
A close-up of a Stimsonite reflector from 1927.Stimsonite produced a different type of road reflector prior to the rise of Shaw's cat's eyes.
Stimsonite magazine spread on road reflectors
Stimsonite was a New Jersey-based company that produced road reflectors with a flat, circular composition much different from the button-beads of cataphotes.
In 1937, the British Department for Transport staged a competition to determine the most resilient road reflector. With the cost of automobiles lessening, streets once trotted by equestrian transport were becoming clogged late at night with cars. The Department for Transport hosted the contest in response to an exponential increase in nighttime traffic collisions. Percy Shaw, with his company, Reflecting Roadstuds Limited, entered the competition with his Catseyes and won. His competitors were disqualified after their entries were damaged during the trials or failed to provide adequate, concentrated light for the testing automobiles.

Luckily, Shaw’s magical bead was produced just in time for the Second World War, and found its breakthrough with the support of the British military and government. Wartime blackouts were a common occurrence throughout the United Kingdom from 1939-1945, as a method for obscuring the sightlines of enemy aircraft. Cataphote reflectors provided drivers a safe passage home in the event of a blackout without calling unwanted attention to roads and pathways.
Stop sign with cataphote reflectors
A Stop sign with cataphote reflectors from the mid-20th century, produced by Miro Flex Co., Inc.
Slow sign with cataphotes; 1948
A Slow sign with cat’s eyes from 1948.
Thru Street Stop Sign with cataphote reflectors.
Thru Street Stop sign with cataphote reflectors, from the Lyle SignPost newsletter in the author's archives.
Cataphote reflectors also proved their reliability in the 1940s with the rise in popularity of shuttered headlights. Today, headlight shutters are installed mainly on massive military vehicles like Hummers, to cloak their visibility from above. During World War II, most of the automobiles were manufactured with shuttered headlights, as a reaction to the militant nature of the times. The installation of cat’s eyes along roads helped cars with low-pointing lights to drive discreetly.
Yellow stop sign with red cataphotes
A Stop sign with red cataphote reflectors, from the SmartSign collection.
Red Stop sign with glowing cat’s eyes
A demonstration of cat’s eyes reflective power on a Stop sign.
The inventor of cat’s eyes, Percy Shaw, was an English businessman and road contractor from Halifax, West Yorkshire. After the nearby suburb of Ambler Thorn removed its tram-lines, Shaw realized that he had been using the polished steel strips’ reflectivity to guide his car along the roads at night. Their shiny lacquer had been incredibly useful, reflecting Shaw’s automobile headlights, guiding him along the dark streets. Without the tram tracks, Shaw had difficulty navigating the roads after sundown.
Sketch of man laying cataphotes into a Detour sign; 1927
A man installing reflectors on a large Detour sign, circa 1927.
Cataphote reflectors also proved their reliability in the 1940s with the rise in popularity of shuttered headlights. Today, headlight shutters are installed mainly on massive military vehicles like Hummers, to cloak their visibility from above. During World War II, most of the automobiles were manufactured with shuttered headlights, as a reaction to the militant nature of the times. The installation of cat’s eyes along roads helped cars with low-pointing lights to drive discreetly.
Reflectors installed on the moon's surface
Reflectors were installed on the moon by astronauts on NASA missions between 1969 and 1971.
Vintage Detour Sign
Vintage Traffic Sign Cats Eyes
Vintage Yellow Reflective Stop Sign

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