In 1843, Norbert Rillieux invented a vacuum evaporation system that revolutionized the sugar-refining process. Production costs dropped drastically with an attendant decrease in retail prices, making sugar more affordable. In addition, his process is now widely used in the manufacture of soap, evaporated milk, glue and gelatin.
Born in New Orleans in 1806 to Vincent Rillieux, a French sugar cane plantation owner, and Constant Vivant, a slave on the plantation, his superior intellect was evident at an early age. Educational opportunities for black people in the South were virtually nil, and his father sent him to L'École Centrale in Paris to study engineering. After graduating, Rillieux remained in Paris. At age 24, he was a teacher of applied mechanics at L'École Centrale, and wrote a series of papers on steam engines and steam economy.
Rillieux returned to New Orleans as the emphasis on technology in the United States provided him with the environment to put his ideas into practice. Working as an engineer in the sugar industry, he focused on improving the efficiency of the sugar refining process. The current method—the Jamaican Train process—was laborious and expensive.
Prior to Rillieux's breakthrough, two engineers developed a vacuum pan and electric coils to streamline this process. This proved to be unsuccessful due to the inefficient use of steam at a crucial stage.
In 1843, Rillieux, now chief engineer, built on the basic idea and surmounted the problem. By enclosing coils in vacuum chambers and combining them in a series, the steam condensed at one stage could then be used to evaporate the next. His multiple-effect vacuum evaporator would convert the sugar cane juice to white sugar crystals. Rillieux's process produced sugar more efficiently and economically, while creating a product of superior quality. His system was soon adopted by all the sugar refineries in the United States as well as in Mexico and Cuba, and remains the basic sugar refining process in use today.
While Rillieux became very wealthy and was held in high esteem by the leaders of the sugar industry, his racial status precluded social acceptance. Enduring daily humiliations and frustrations, he remained in New Orleans. However, the final insult came when he was required to carry a pass in order to travel without restriction.
Rillieux returned to Paris, where he lost all interest in engineering. He spent the next ten years of his life working with the Champollions deciphering hieroglyphics. Eventually, he returned to engineering and the problems of evaporation and sugar machinery when he adapted his process to the refining of the sugar beet, the main source of European sugar.
Eight Black American Inventors, R.C. Hayden. Addison-Wesley, 1972.
Great Negroes: Past and Present, Russell L. Adams. African American Images, 1993.
The Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America, Aaron E. Klein. Doubleday, 1971.
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Outward Dreams: Black Inventors and Their Inventions, Jim Haskins. Walker & Co., 1991.
A Salute to Black Scientists and Inventors. Empak Enterprises, 1996.
Search for 'Norbert Rilieux' on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca.
African-American Inventors & Inventions: Norbert Rillieux - Slave, Scientist
Engines of Our Ingenuity No. 236: Norbert Rillieux
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