In 1806, Norbert Rillieux was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to parents Vincent Rillieux and Constance Vivant. Vincent Rillieux was a successful inventor of the steam-operated cotton baller and a slave owner. Constance Vivant and Norbert Rillieux were both free from slavery. Norbert, a mixed race creole was allowed privileges other people of African descent were not. He received a prominent education from a private Catholic school in Louisiana before traveling to Paris to study at École Centrale Paris, a postgraduate-level institute of research and higher education in engineering and science. Norbert’s educational concentrations at École Centrale Paris included physics, mechanics, and engineering. He was interested in steam engines and actually became an expert on steam engines, he even published several papers explaining the functions of steam engines. In 1830, at the age of twenty-four, Norbert became an instructor of applied mechanics at École Centrale Paris. Later in 1830, Norbert published a paper about using steam technology to help improve sugar refinery. He also began working on his multiple effect evaporating system which is an invention that would truly change the world.
At that time, the process of making sugar from sugarcane was dangerous, unproductive and extremely expensive. The process of sugar making was actually called the "Sugar Train", “Spanish Train” or “Jamaican Train”. Large amounts of pressed sugar was poured into a huge cauldron, heated and monitored until the water evaporated. The remaining liquid was poured repeatedly into smaller pots during the thickening process of the liquid; the problem with the process was that sugar was constantly lost and or burned due to no control of the heat. The main problem with the process was the slaves that were forced to refine the sugar were often injured during the transportation of the scalding liquids. Norbert moved back to Louisiana with the intentions of working with his brother Edmund and his cousin Norbert Soulie as the head engineer of their coming Louisiana sugar refinery. Edmund and Norbert Soulie learned about Norbert’s work in using steam to improve sugar refinery and recruited him to join them. The refinery was never opened so they were not able to use Norbert’s intelligence and ingenuity to make their dream a reality.
In 1843, Norbert Rillieux patented his multiple-effect evaporating system which improved the sugar refining process and also eliminated the need for slaves to be used to transport scalding liquids. The multiple-effect evaporating system helped to reduce the boiling point, it utilized multiple pans that better controlled the heat, and it also prevented the sugar from being burned or unable to be used. More sugar was produced, less time was used, no workers were harmed, and the sugar producers made more money. 1843 is also the year that Norbert installed his evaporator at the sugar refinery on the Bellechasse Plantation owned by Judah Benjamin. Benjamin was pleased with Norbert’s invention and became his biggest supporter, he stated that Norbert’s sugar was outstanding, even equal to or better than the sugar refined in the North.
Norbert Rillieux became one of the most sought after engineers in the state of Louisiana, he was installing his multiple-effect evaporating system for a large number of sugar plantation owners and earning a large amount of money; however, he did not earn enough money or notoriety to erase racism. When plantation owners would invite Norbert to install his invention they would force him to either live with the slaves or give him his own quarters and have slaves serve him. Norbert was not used to the treatment and it bothered him, also during that time the freedom of blacks was suspended because of the coming Civil War. On one occasion, Norbert submitted an application for a patent that was denied because the workers at the patent office mistook him for a slave. Norbert eventually moved back to Paris, France because of the treatment he received and witnessed, and the decline in the sugar refining industry. Norbert died in 1894 in Paris. Before his death, he developed a passion for Egypt and was spotted studying hieroglyphics at the various pyramids in Egypt. Norbert Rillieux literally created the modern sugar refinery industry just by being passionate about steam engineering and using it to help improve the way sugar was produced. Mr. Norbert Rillieux, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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