The first catalytic converters were invented by a French mechanical engineer named Eugene Houdry. In the early 1950s, Houdry was living in Pennsylvania working on ways to lessen the amount of toxins from industrial smokestacks. After reading some of the first reports concerning smog caused by automobile emissions, he expanded his research and founded a company called Oxy-catalyst.
By 1953, the first converters had been developed for smokestacks, and within two years he perfected a converter for forklifts. Finally, in 1956 Houdry had created a smaller converter that could convert the toxic gases from auto smoke into less dangerous substances, and had his catalytic converter patented.
At first, very few cars actually had converters because gasoline had a chemical called tetraethyl lead, which could coat the converters and render them useless. This was outlawed in the U.S. in the late 1960s, and now catalytic converters play a major role in reducing the amount of deadly pollutants that cars put into the atmosphere.
By 1973, engineers working for the Engelhard Corporation had developed newer production converters that greatly improved on Houdry’s original model. Converters for gas turbines were also perfected around this time, reducing carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions to near zero in such turbines.