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The catalytic converter was invented by Eugene Houdry, a French mechanical engineer and expert in catalytic oil refining who lived in the United States. Around 1950, when the results of early studies of smog in Los Angeles were published, Houdry became concerned about the role of automobile exhaust in air pollution and founded a special company, Oxy-Catalyst, to develop catalytic converters for gasoline engines - an idea ahead of its time for which he was awarded a patent (US2742437). Widespread adoption had to wait until the extremely effective anti-knock agent tetraethyl lead was eliminated from most gasoline over environmental concerns, as the agent would "foul" the converter by forming a coating on the catalyst's surface, effectively disabling it.
The catalytic converter was further developed by John J. Mooney and Carl D. Keith at the Engelhard Corporation, creating the first production catalytic converter in 1973.