Oral history interview with John H. Sinfelt

Oral history interview with John H. Sinfelt

  • 1995-Feb-21
Photograph of John H. Sinfelt
John H. Sinfelt in his laboratory. Courtesy ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company.

In this interview, Dr. Sinfelt recalls his childhood during the Depression, his early education, and his interest in mathematics. He then moves on to the awakening of his interest in science, first at Lycoming College and then at Pennsylvania State University. He decided to continue on to graduate work at the University of Illinois. Sinfelt describes the University's chemistry department under Roger Adams and his own studies under Harry Drickamer.

Moving on to the Exxon Research and Engineering Company, Sinfelt recounts how post-World War II demand for increased production of high octane gasoline led to two developments: the choice of fixed-bed platinum hydroforming over fluid-bed hydroforming and the choice of precious rather than non-precious metal catalysts. Sinfelt describes how his research on catalytic reaction kinetics meshed with Exxon's increased emphasis on basic research and how this led to his discovery of bimetallic clusters and the success of the platinum-iridium catalyst. He describes how Exxon's commercial use of this catalyst, along with Chevron's platinum-rhenium catalyst led to the development of lead-free gasoline and decreased carbon monoxide emissions. Sinfelt next discusses current environmental concerns about this system. He then explains his research on the crystalline structure of bimetallic catalysts, which led to the characterization of small metallic particles and metallic adsorption. Finally, Sinfelt discusses Exxon's attitude toward research; his book Bimetallic Catalysts, in which he theorizes on the relationship between an element's catalytic activity and its place in the periodic table; and his views on innovation, teamwork, and the future of research in the chemical industry.

Place of interview
Original file type MP3, JPEG, PDF
  • 62 pages
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.

Physical location


Interviewee biographical information

  • February 18, 1931
  • Munson, Pennsylvania, United States
  • May 28, 2011
  • Tewksbury, New Jersey, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1951 Pennsylvania State University BS Chemical Engineering
1953 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign MS Chemical Engineering
1954 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign PhD Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

Exxon Research and Engineering Company

  • 1954 to 1957 Research Engineer
  • 1957 to 1962 Group Leader
  • 1962 to 1968 Research Associate
  • 1968 to 1972 Senior Research Associate
  • 1972 to 1979 Scientific Advisor
  • 1979 to 1996 Senior Scientific Advisor
  • 1996 to 1997 Senior Scientific Advisor Emeritus


Year(s) Award
1971 Alpha Chi Sigma Award in Chemical Engineering Research, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1973 Paul H. Emmett Award in Fundamental Catalysis, Catalysis Society
1975 Elected to National Academy of Engineering
1975 Professional Progress Award for Outstanding Progress in Chemical Engineering, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1976 American Chemical Society Award in Petroleum Chemistry
1977 Dickson Prize in Science and Engineering, Carnegie-Mellon University
1978 American Physical Society International Prize for New Materials
1979 Elected to National Academy of Sciences
1979 President's National Medal of Science
1980 Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1981 Honorary DSc, University of Illinois
1981 Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists
1984 Perkin Medal in Chemistry, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)
1984 Gold Medal in Chemistry, American Institute of Chemists
1985 Distinguished Alumnus Award, Pennsylvania State University
1986 E. V. Murphree Award in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1991 Elected to New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame
1994 Elected to American Philosophical Society

Cite as

John H. Sinfelt, interviewed by James J. Bohning in Annandale, New Jersey on February 21, 1995. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0134. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/js956g92d.

  Export citation (RIS) ?

This citation is automatically generated and may contain errors.

PDF — 312 KB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

9 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads