The catalytic converter was invented by Eugene Houdry, a French mechanical engineer and expert in catalytic oil refining who lived in the U.S. around 1950. When the results of early studies of smog in Los Angeles were published, Houdry became concerned about the role of smoke stack exhaust and automobile exhaust in air pollution and founded a company, Oxy-Catalyst. Houdry first developed catalytic converters for smoke stacks called cats for short. Then he developed catalytic converters for warehouse fork lifts that used low grade non-leaded gasoline. Then in the mid 1950s he began research to develop catalytic converters for gasoline engines used on cars. He was awarded United States Patent 2742437 for his work.
Widespread adoption of catalytic converters didn’t occur until more stringent emission control regulations forced the removal of the anti-knock agent, tetraethyllead, from most gasoline, because lead was a ‘catalyst poison’ and would inactivate the converter by forming a coating on the catalyst’s surface, effectively disabling it.
Catalytic converters were further developed by a series of engineers including John J. Mooney and Carl D. Keith at the Engelhard Corporation, creating the first production catalytic converter in 1973.
Dr. William C. Pfefferle developed a catalytic combustor for gas turbines in the early 1970s, allowing combustion without significant formation of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide.