Born in New Orleans in March 1806, Norbert Rillieux’s mother, Constance Vivant, had been a slave, although he himself was free. Rillieux, a Creole engineer and inventor who spoke Louisianan French, was the son of a wealthy white engineer who worked in the cotton industry. The eldest of seven, Rillieux’s Creole family was prominent, the painter Edgar Degas was a cousin.
Privileged with a Parisian education
The young Rillieux’s received privileges and an education which were not open to ‘free’ black people or slaves. His early schooling took place in a Catholic school in the city of his birth, though for his later education he was sent to Paris. At France’s top engineering school, L’Ecole Centrale, he became (aged 24), the youngest person ever, to be appointed an applied mechanics instructor, having studied mechanics, engineering and physics at this famous institution.
It was here that he wrote several papers concerning The Functions and Economic Implications of the Steam Engine, focusing on using steam to operate machinery. Rillieux, by this time was a competent machinist and blacksmith.
Back to his Louisiana roots: A key man in sugar refining
In 1834 Rillieux went back to Louisiana to his father’s plantation, which at the time was also being used for processing and refining sugar. While sugarcane had become the state’s most important crop, the process for refining sugar, which was then being used, was neither efficient nor safe. The system, called the ‘Jamaica Train’ or the ‘Spanish Train’, meant that sugarcane had to be boiled in massive, open kettles before being strained so that the cane and juice could be separated.
Once the juice was boiled at very high temperatures, it evaporated, leaving behind granules of sugar. It was dangerous because workers (who at that time were mostly slaves) had to transfer the juice between kettles at boiling temperatures, risking serious burns during such transfers. Additionally, the process was also an expensive one, because so much fuel had to be used to heat up the different kettles employed.
In the 1830s, a steam-operated, single-pan vacuum was introduced in France. With this system, the pan was enclosed in an area in which the air had been removed. This permitted liquid to boil at a lower temperature, making the process cheaper.
Rillieux, who started his research to improve the sugar refining process while still in France, made this system even more efficient with the addition of a second and then a third pan, with each one being heated by the pan which had been used before. It became known as the multiple effect evaporator, and marked a milestone in the sugar industry’s growth.
A New Orleans sugar producer by the name of Edmund Forstall approached Rillieux in 1833 and asked him to become the Louisiana Sugar Refinery’s chief engineer. This was in the wake of numerous complaints which sugar manufacturers had been receiving at the time about product quality. Forstall was also working with Rilleux’s brother, Edmond, and other relatives.
However, almost immediately after taking up the position, Rillieux’s father Vincent and Forstall developed an intense feud. Norbert’s family loyalty was such that he quit his job, finding another, sometime later, when a Theodore Packwood persuaded him to try his hand at improving the refinery at his Myrtle Grove Plantation.
As part of this work, Rillieux patented his triple evaporation pan system in 1843. This was a huge revolutionary success in the way it improved the safety, quality and efficiency of the sugar refining industry.
Swamp politics and Yellow Fever
By the 1850s, the city of New Orleans was in the grips of a yellow fever outbreak, due to mosquitoes carrying the disease. It was Rillieux who came up with a complex scheme for beating it by draining the swamps which surrounded New Orleans, while also improving the sewer system in the town. This eliminated the insects’ breeding ground, making it impossible for yellow fever to spread. However, Rillieux’s ex-employer Forstall, who belonged to the state legislature, criticised his former employee’s plan, which was ultimately rejected after Forstall effectively stoked up sentiment against Rillieux.
Return to France
Rilleux’s frustration at the nature of local politics, and the racism which was very prevalent in the southern US at the time, led him to return to France a few years before the American Civil War broke out. With almost bitter irony, some years later, the state legislature was forced to carry through a near-identical scheme (introduced by white engineers) to Rillieux’s, to deal with the yellow fever which had continued to devastate New Orleans.
Back in France, Rillieux continued to work on many new inventions, while also defending his patents and often travelling overseas. In later life, he also developed an interest in Egyptology.
Then, in his mid-1870s, Rillieux made a final foray in sugar evaporation when he took his multiple effect evaporation process and used it to extract sugar from sugar beets. Although he lost the rights to the patent he had filed, Rillieux’s system successfully addressed faults in the process that was previously being used, and was considerably more fuel-efficient.
He died at the age of 88, leaving behind his legacy of having revolutionised the sugar production industry and, in so doing, also changing the way in which the world ate.
His grave is in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris, next to that of his wife Emily Cuckow, who died some 18 years after her husband. A bronze memorial to Rillieux can be found in the Louisiana State Museum.