Norbert Rillieux: chemist and engineer
record on file in New Orleans City Hall is spare: "Norbert Rillieux,
quadroon libre, natural son of Vincent Rillieux and Constance Vivant.
Born March 17, 1806. Baptized in St. Louis Cathedral by Père Antoine."
Vincent Rillieux was an inventor himself who designed a steam-operated
press for baling cotton. He appears to have had a long relationship with
Constance Vivant, "a free woman of color,"
and one of their sons, Norbert, became what is now called a chemical engineer.
The use of the fathers surname and the baptism in New Orleans
cathedral indicate the paternity was publicly acknowledged.
As a boy the precocious Norbert showed an interest in engineering, and
his father sent him to France for his education. By the age of 24, Rillieux
was an instructor in applied mechanics at the École Centrale in
Paris. Around 1830, Rillieux published a series of papers on steam engines
and steam power.
While in France, Rillieux began working on the multiple
effect evaporator. As George Meade, a sugar expert, wrote in 1946:
"The great scientific contribution which Rillieux made was in his
recognition of the steam economies which can be effected by repeated use
of the latent heat in the steam and vapors." What Rillieux did, and
what became the basis for all modern industrial evaporation, was to harness
the energy of vapors rising from the boiling sugar cane syrup and pass
those vapors through several chambers, leaving in the end sugar crystals.
Rillieuxs evaporator was a safer, cheaper, and more efficient way
of evaporating sugar cane juice than the method then in use, the Jamaica
train. In this system, teams of slaves ladled 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.
Some Louisiana sugar planters quickly understood the significance of Rillieuxs
invention, and he returned to New Orleans in the early 1830s, years that
coincided with a sugar boom. Rillieux tinkered with his invention over
the next decade, and in 1843 he was hired to install an evaporator on
Judah Benjamins Bellechasse Plantation. Benjamin, a Jewish lawyer
who later served as secretary of war in the Confederacy, became Rillieuxs
staunchest supporter in Louisiana sugar circles. Benjamin wrote in 1846
that sugar produced with the Rillieux apparatus was superb, the equal
of "the best double-refined sugar of our northern refineries."
The success of his evaporator apparently made Rillieux, according to a
contemporary, "the most sought after engineer in Louisiana,"
and he acquired a large fortune. But while his invention no doubt enriched
sugar planters, Rillieux was still, under the law, "a person of color"
who might visit sugar plantations to install his evaporator but who could
not sleep in the plantation house. (Nor, for that matter, could a man
of Rillieuxs accomplishments be expected to stay in slave quarters.
Some planters, it appears, provided Rillieux with a special house with
slave servants while he visited as "a consultant."). As the
Civil War approached, the status of free blacks deteriorated with the
imposition of new restrictions on their ability to move about the streets
of New Orleans and other draconian laws.
It was about this time that Rillieux moved back to France. Race relations
may have played a part in his decision. At one point, Rillieux became
incensed when one of his applications for a patent was denied initially
because authorities mistakenly believed he was a slave and thus not a
citizen of the United States. The declining profitability of the sugar
industry in Louisiana also may have been a factor. In any event, in Paris,
Rillieux developed a passion for Egypt. In 1880, a visiting Louisiana
sugar planter found Rillieux deciphering hieroglyphics at the Bibliothèque
Rillieux died in 1894 and was buried in the famed Paris cemetery of Père
Lachaise. His wife, Emily Cuckow, lived comfortably for another eighteen