They say that nothing sells like celebrity, the proof being in the number of Hollywood stars hawking perfume, umbrellas, clothes and hair dye. But celebrity encompasses historical figures too, and corporations have used Albert Einstein, Shakespeare and Michelangelo’s David to peddle their wares. So, when Catalytic of Canada used an image of Italian navigator John Cabot — the first European explorer to discover North America — to evoke its entrepreneurial spirit, it was a memorable and dashing way to tout the company brand.

Catalytic Construction of Canada Ltd., which had offices across the country, helped pioneer the contract maintenance concept for expert upkeep and repair of chemical and petroleum plants. A key selling feature emphasized how the company’s catalytic engineers made forays into the field to assess the progress of jobs under construction and advise construction crews and engineers.

Only two years after this advertisement appeared in the 1960 edition of Chemistry in Canada, the company was bought by Air Products, which had purchased the Houdry Process Company and its subsidiary Catalytic Construction Company, owner of Catalytic Construction of Canada. This helped catapult Air Products onto the New York Stock Exchange, with sales going beyond $100 million.

Today Air Products is the world’s second largest industrial gas producer and in 2013 reported sales of $10.2 billion. It provides atmospheric, process and specialty gases and boasts employees in more than 50 countries. Its Canadian office is headquartered in Richmond, BC.

The Houdry process, invented in the 1930s by French-born Eugene Jules Houdry of Pennsylvania, involved using fluid catalytic cracking for the selective conversion of crude petroleum to valuable gasoline. Catalytic cracking enhanced the gasoline octane rating, allowing the development of efficient, high-compression automobile engines. During the Second World War, the high-octane fuel shipped from Houdry plants played a critical role in the Allied victory.

Since then, engineering advances have made the original fixed-bed Houdry process units obsolete. The fixed-bed was transformed to the more economical fluidized-bed systems while introducing the use of crystalline aluminosilicate catalysts to produce higher yields of gasoline. Nonetheless, the same fundamental principles invented by Houdry have stood the test of time and are still considered the basis for manufacturing gasoline.