Norbert Rillieux was considered the godfather of the sugar industry because he made the processing of sugar easier and less laborious with his invention of the multiple effect evaporator under vacuum. This was did not come as surprise, as his father, Vincent Rillieux, was also an inventor who pioneered the steam-operated press for baling cotton.
Rillieux was born in 1806 to Vincent Rillieux and Constance Vivant, a free woman of color, according to the American Chemical Society. Rillieux in his early days exhibited a profound interest in engineering, compelling his father to fly him to France for his studies.
Rillieux was later employed as an instructor in applied mechanics at the Ecole Centrale in Paris when he turned 24. He published several scientific papers on steam engines and steam power. He commenced his research into the multiple effect evaporator while sojourning in France. A sugar expert, George Meade, in 1946 noted that Rillieux’s work was one of the great revolutionary ideas in steam economies which dwelled on the repeated use of latent heat in steam and vapors.
Rillieux’s invention became the reference point for designing modern industrial evaporation, which harvested the energy of vapors rising from boiling sugar cane syrup and transferring those vapors through a number of chambers, leaving remnants of sugar crystals to be processed into sugar.
His invention was readily accepted by players in the industry because it was a safer, cheaper and more effective way of extracting sugar from sugar cane juice than the Jamaican train which was in vogue at the time.
The Jamaican train method employed teeming slaves who opened one kettle to another while pouring in boiling sugar juice. This process produced low-quality sugar because the heat emanating from the kettles could not be regulated. Also, a significant volume was lost in the process of moving the sugar juice from one kettle to another.
In the early 1930s, when Rillieux relocated to New Orleans, some Louisiana sugar planters sought him to build his invention on their plantations to process sugar. In 1843, he was commissioned by Judah Benjamin’s Bellechasse Plantation to build an evaporator for them. Over the next decade in the mid-1800s, Rillieux’s invention became popular during the sugar boom.
He had the backing of Benjamin, who later served as secretary of war in the Confederacy. Benjamin, also a Jewish lawyer, endorsed Rillieux’s invention in an article where he described sugar produced from his evaporator as superb.
Rillieux became one of the most celebrated engineers in Louisiana and made a great deal of wealth from his invention. Despite his prominence, the laws in Louisiana made it difficult for Rillieux, a man of color, to sleep in plantation houses even when his services were hired to install an evaporator. Some sugar planters made an adjustment by providing him with a special house with slave servants while he visited as a consultant.
He moved back to France when new draconian laws were passed to make the lives of Black people uncomfortable. At some point, he got angry when one of his applications for a patent was declined because the authorities thought he was a slave and cannot be considered a citizen of the United States.
Some historians also indicated that another reason he relocated to France was that the sugar industry in Louisiana was beginning to witness a dip in its profits. Rillieux passed away in 1894 and was interred at the Paris cemetery of Pere Lachaise.