Norbert Rillieux Biography (1806-1894)

engineer and inventor

Norbert Rillieux was a brilliant student of thermodynamics who became famousfor devising evaporators for sugar cane, revolutionizing the sugar-refining industry and easing the labor of slaves.

Born free on March 17, 1806, on a New Orleans plantation to Vincent Rillieux,a prosperous engineer and inventor of a steam-operated cotton baler, and hisslave wife, Constance Vivant, Norbert was baptized at the St. Louis Cathedral in the Latin Quarter. Exceptionally privileged for a Southern negro of hisday, he was educated at Catholic Schools, then at L'Ecole Centrale in Paris.

In 1830, Rillieux's skill in engineering brought him a teaching post in applied mechanics at his Paris alma mater. That same year he published his findings on the applicability of steam economy to industry, and began working on theproblem of evaporating moisture from cane juice while lowering heat to produce a whiter, more refined, sugar crystal. At the same time that he evolved the basic machinery, he created lunettes, which are glass chambers through which the technician could observe the process, a catchall for preventing sugar from escaping from one pan to another, and cast-iron vessels to replace costlier copper containers.

Ten years after beginning work, Rillieux tested his multi-effect vacuum evaporating chamber, a bulky locomotive-sized apparatus containing a network of condensing coils for evaporating raw cane juice. A secondary advantage to the internal coils was the use of vapor from the first stage of the process as theheat source for the rest of the procedure. By removing intense human labor and increasing fuel economy, the device improved the product, increased the rate of production, and cut expenses and the cost of sugar. He patented the device in 1843, but for two years he found no investor for his system. Rillieuxultimately found a prospective client and tinkered with his system for over two years before turning out a suitable product. After the system was permanently installed in 1846, he obtained a patent on modifications.

Rillieux's evaporators, which quickly gained popularity in the sugar industry, were used at Myrtle Grove Plantation, Louisiana, and thousands of other plantations throughout the southeastern United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Eventually, refined sugar crystals, which were a specialty item, became anordinary commodity for which refiners found increasing markets. As a result,the demand for slave labor increased the price of field hands to $5,000 each.Rillieux received an offer to head Edmund Forstall's New Orleans sugar factory, but upon Rillieux's return to the United States, he resigned over a quarrel between Forstall and Rillieux's father.

After Rillieux's evaporation system reached European markets, he began applying the concept to sugar beets, thereby lessening the cost factor in sugar production. Ultimately, the process was applied to all industrial evaporation processes, including the making of condensed milk, gelatin, soap, glue, whisky,and other products, and the recycling of wastes from paper mills.

As a means of reducing yellow fever from the mosquitoes breeding in Louisiana's lowlands and swamps, Rillieux also studied New Orleans's sewage disposal system, but his proposal was rejected because of his race. Subsequent systemsresembling his were later instituted. Rillieux grew depressed and bitter, believing Southerners were allowing racism to override progress.

In 1854, as the racial climate of Louisiana became more restrictive, Rillieux, in revolt against having to carry a pass, became one of many black expatriates to settle in Paris. He returned to his old teaching job and was advancedto headmaster. He gained a scholarship, then studied engineering, wrote articles for scientific journals, and worked on translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics. He died October 8, 1894, in Paris and was buried among France's illustrious dead in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, leaving behind considerable wealth to his wife Emily Rillieux. Around 1930, the Dutch began a push to honor Norbert Rillieux. From their effort came a bronze plaque at the Louisiana State Museum.

Recent Updates

February 11, 2004: It was announced that Rillieux will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for automating and improving the efficiency of modern sugar production. His process helped the United States becomeone of the major sugar-producing countries in the world. The induction ceremony will be held on May 1, 2004, in Akron, Ohio. Source: National Inventors Hall of Fame,, April 8, 2004.

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