Creepy Cat’s Eyes Inspire Road Markers (And Other Surprisingly Cool Inventions)

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Two types of cat eyes. Both are scary non-negotiable. Photos in the public domain.

The inventiveness of nature often inspires human innovation as in the well-known case of hook-and-loop fasteners: the Swiss engineer George de Mestrel transformed a hiking annoyance (burrs) into a practical tool (Velcro). But did you know that road safety beacons were inspired by cat’s eyes reflecting headlights? For some reason, I find this much scarier than the Velcro story – especially the first advertisement depicting a row of live cats helpfully sitting along the median.

“Eyeshine” may be most familiar as a feline phenomenon, but it occurs in a wide variety of animals, from moths to whales. It’s caused by the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind the light-sensitive part of the eye that reflects photons back, giving them a second chance to be seen. This ability is a major advantage at night and on the high seas and has evolved many times in many different forms.

Crocodiles and opossums use small particles to achieve diffuse reflection; deep-sea fish have layered crystals that reflect like a real mirror. Horses and whales reflect with an organized mesh of fibers; cats, dogs, seals and sharks all use cells containing crystals. Sharks are the only ones able to cover themselves if the environment has also lots of light (Sharks: 1, Cats: 0).

Multipack holder © Hi-Cone, photo by Andreas Sütterlin
Multipack holder © Hi-Cone, photo by Andreas Sütterlin

Eyeshine is just one of many rabbit holes of curiosity opened up by a visit to “Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things,” an exhibit currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Art that includes both Velcro and safety reflectors.

“Hidden Heroes” was designed by Hi-Cone, a division of multinational ITW that produces those ubiquitous plastic rings for carrying six-packs. Their slogan is not scary, “We are everywhere”. Concerned about the public’s inability “to consciously perceive invention and its ingenuity”, Hi-Cone convinced Germany’s Vitra Design Museum to create an entire exhibition of mundane objects (including six-pack rings, of course) . The online exhibit features 44 heroes, 35 of which are on an international tour of the meat space. San Jose is just one of two host locations in the United States; the other was the MIT museum.

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