8 key British inventions of the last century

Image source


Percy Shaw had his own road-surfacing business at the time he developed and patented the ‘Catseye’ reflecting roadstud in 1934. It has been heralded as the most brilliant invention ever produced in the interests of road safety.

It was said that while driving home in the fog in 1933, he reached a dangerous part of the road. There were no lights and the fog outside was so bad that he could barely see anything. However, his headlights had the fortune of being reflected back by the eyes of a stray cat.

Catseye roadstuds comprise four glass beads, each with a reflective coating applied, embedded within a rubber housing encased in a cast-iron base. These night-time road guides are fit for all weathers and their robust nature withstands even the heaviest traffic. The flexibility of the rubber protects the reflectors by allowing them to sink down inside the rubber when compressed, cleaning their surfaces in the process by using the rainwater that collects in the metal base.

Despite its brilliance, it took a decade for its merits to be fully realised; Second World War blackouts would lead to the widespread implementation of Catseyes in Britain.

Shaw’s entrepreneurial drive translated his idea into a commercial product that was manufactured in great numbers and became invaluable to the wider world. Since that time, Catseyes have never fundamentally changed in their functionality, demonstrating the excellence of the original design.

Image source

Stainless steel

In 1913, Harry Brearley originally set out to produce a way of improving the quality of gun barrels. Born in Sheffield, which was one of the UKs main steel producing towns, Brearley had been asked by the army to reduce the amount of corrosion that happened when a gun was fired. 

Gun barrels were grooved in spiral patterns that caused the bullets to spin. It was said that this increased accuracy, but with time the friction of the spinning bullet eventually wore the barrel down, making it too big for the bullet.

Others before him had researched ironchromium alloys or attempted to add in other elements to prevent rusting. Like those before him, however, Brearley didnt have the answer. He failed again and again, each time throwing the scrap pieces of steel into a pile which just grew larger.

We owe the success of stainless steel to this very pile. At some point Brearley noticed that one of his failures had remained the same while the rest of the pile turned into a rusted heap. He had almost discovered stainless steal and thrown it away!

His discovery was originally named ‘rustless steel’ and it had the ability to withstand a wide range of environments, such as extreme cold or intense heat. With its bright reflective gloss an important feature, it is fully recyclable, durable and can be cut, welded, machined, rolled, moulded and fabricated for a multitude of uses, from car exhausts to the cladding of Canary Wharf Tower.

Next on the list: DNA sequencing and carbon fibre…

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend