The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Chemical Technology >> Biography
Norbert Rillieux

developer of a better way to process sugar

Norbert Rillieux

Norbert Rillieux was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 17, 1806. His father, Vincent Rillieux, was a white plantation owner who had designed a steam-operated press for baling cotton. His mother, Constance Vivant, was a black woman with whom Rillieux apparently had had a long relationship. Despite the usually taboo nature of the relationship, there is little evidence that is was anything less than public, as Norbert was baptized in a local cathedral with his father's surname.

An early interest in engineering spurred Norbert's father to send him to France for his secondary education. By the age of 24 he was an instructor of applied mechanics at the École Centrale in Paris and was publishing papers on steam power and steam engines.

Returning to New Orleans in 1834, Rillieux began working on a more efficient way of processing sugar. The system in use at the time involved teams of slaves ladling boiling sugar juice from one open kettle to another. The resulting sugar tended to be of low quality since the heat in the kettles could not be regulated, and much sugar was lost in the process of transferring juice from kettle to kettle. What Rillieux came up with was a way to harness the energy of vapors rising from the boiling sugar cane syrup and pass those vapors through several chambers, leaving much purer sugar crystals. In 1843 he was hired to install an evaporator at Judah Benjamin's Bellechase Plantation, and Benjamin quickly became one his biggest supporters. He received a U. S. patent for the process in 1845. The success of Rillieux's evaporator made him “the most sought after engineer in Louisiana,” and he acquired a large fortune. It did not, however, give him the freedom to move about New Orleans freely, as he was still considered a free black man and, therefore, subject to restrictions.

Rillieux also tried to use his engineering skills to help New Orleans deal with a yellow fever outbreak in the early 1850's. He presented a plan to the city that would eliminate the mosquitoes responsible for the disease by addressing problems with the city's sewer system and drying swamplands. His plan was rejected, however, primarily because of his race. Ironically, engineers eventually used a very similar method several years later, after having failed to stem the outbreak using methods developed by whites.

Rillieux moved back to France in 1854 and began cultivating an interest in Egyptology. In 1880, a visiting Louisiana sugar planter found him deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics at the Bibliotheque Nationale. He died in Paris on October 8, 1894,and was buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery

American Chemical Society
The Black Inventor Online Museum

Judah Benjamin

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Chemical Technology >> Biography

This page was last updated on June 24, 2018.