Norbert Rillieux was born a free man in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 7, 1806 to Constance Vivant a slave on the plantation of his father Vincent Rillieux. He was adopted by his father ad given his name when he was baptized in St. Louis Cathedral by Pere Antoine. Rillieux’s intelligence was noted at an early age by his father who decided he would send Norbert to school. Since the law (The Black Codes) stated that white people would not allow Blacks to be educated in America Norbert’s father sent him to France. He studied engineering at L’Ecole Centrale in Paris. Norbert excelled over his French classmates and at the young age of 24 he was appointed engineering teacher at the school upon his graduation. He was the youngest professor at the school for that time. He contributed many papers on steam technology to engineering journals.
When Norbert was young and still on his father’s plantation he would watch gangs of men laboriously ladle sugar cane juice from one kettle to another. Sugar cane had become a dominant crop in Louisiana, but the sugar refining process employed at that time was extremely dangerous and very inefficient. Known as the Jamaica Train, the process called for sugar cane to be boiled in huge open kettles and then strained to allow the juice to be separated from the cane. The juice was then evaporated by boiling it at an extreme temperature resulting in granules being left behind in the form of sugar. The danger stemmed from the fact that the workers were forced to transport boiling juice from one kettle to another using long handled ladles, chancing the possibility of suffering severe burns. It was also a very costly process considering the large amount of fuel needed to heat the various kettles.
He began working on a process to better refine sugar. He utilized the physics he had learned and invented the first practical multiple effect vacuum evaporator. This machine used an improved process to remove water from sugar cane. Rillieux’s multiple effect vacuum evaporator patented in 1843 utilized a number of physical principles to increase the efficiency of sugar refining. The cane juice was heated in enclosed vacuum pans. The existence of a partial vacuum reduced the boiling point of the liquid with a consequent improvement in fuel economy. Pipes led the steam and heated juice from one pan to another in such a way that the steam could be utilized for further heating, thereby achieving greater fuel efficiency. The results of this invention were several fold. Because the liquid could be boiled at lower temperatures, less fuel was needed. The process was so efficient that it cut back significantly on labor. The remaining sugar that was produced, in much higher quantities was of better quality that the Jamaica train method. Since the evaporator produced much more sugar at a much cheaper cost, the demand for sugar sky rocketed the demand for field slaves on sugar plantations increased.
Such slaves were selling for as much as $5000 in the 1850’s which increased the economic incentive to defend slavery. In 1846 Rellieux petitioned for and was granted his second and final patent for his new and improved sugar producing machine.
Following the success of the evaporator he turned his attentions to developing a sewage disposal system for New Orleans. Sewage disposal was a problem in early New Orleans. Rillieux submitted his plans to the New Orleans Authorities but they were turned down for racial reasons. By this time New Orleans had become part of the United States and racial tensions had increased to unbearable levels Rillieux put up with numerous growing restrictions and indignities. In 1854 a new law was passed that required all free Black citizens to carry a pass and get permission to enter town. This indignity he could not submit to and he went back to France where he resumed his teachings at L’Ecole Centrale. Within a very short time he was appointed the headmaster of the school.
While in Paris, Norbert lost all interest in the sugar refining process and turned his attentions to Egyptology and made significant contributions to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. He continued an active career until his death. Rillieux died in 1895 at the age of 88 of what can best be described as a broken heart due to the French government disallowing his attempt to patent an upgraded version of his evaporator four years earlier.
He was buried in a vault in the churchyard Pere La Chaise. It is known from the headstone that Norbert married Emily Cuckow a woman 21 years younger than he. Little is known about her other than she lived in very comfortable means until her death in 1912.
The most depressing aspects of Norbert Rillieux’s life continue to come many years after his death. He is credited with creating the system of refining such products as sugar, condensed milk, soaps, gelatin, and glue yet he is forgotten in places like the New York Public Library, encyclopedias, and The Dictionary of American Biography. Most writer who have devoted themselves to the study of Negro life and Negro history afford him very little or no space.