Norbert Rillieux revolutionised sugar refining; the impact of his technology can be seen today in the recycling procedure on the International Space Station.
Norbert Rillieux was born in 1806 in New Orleans, the son of Vincent Rilleux, a wealthy plantation owner, and Constance Vivant, a ‘free person of colour’. Vivant was not herself a slave and her parentage is not known, but it is very likely that they were slaves. Norbert was a Creole of mixed race descent and was the first of eight children born to his parents.
Norbert was sent to France to be educated, which was not uncommon for the children of wealthy New Orleans parents. While there, Norbert showed promise as a chemical engineer, and by the age of 24, he was an instructor in applied mechanics at L’Ecole Centrale in Paris. He became an authority on steam engines, and turned his new knowledge to some of the manufacturing problems he had left behind him in Louisiana.
The problem of refining sugar
In particular, he was occupied with the problem of refining sugar from sugarcane. The process used on the plantations in New Orleans was known as the ‘Sugar Train’; the juice was pressed from the cane, and poured into a large pan where it was heated. The water would evaporate away, and the slaves working on the plantation would pour the thick residue into a succession of smaller pots for it to thicken. Aside from the sugar that was lost at each step or burned on the bottom of the pans, the process was dangerous for the slaves who had to handle the scalding liquid.
Norbert’s research attracted the attention of Edmund Forstall, who had been working to build a new refinery along with one of his brothers. Forstall offered Norbert the position of head engineer at the new refinery, which was not yet built. Norbert returned to Louisiana in 1833 to work on the new refinery design, however, Forstall and the Rilleux family fell out over the project and the refinery was never built.
Undaunted, Norbert continued his research into the thermodynamics of sugar refining over the following nine years, and he patented his machine in 1843. His new ‘triple effect’ method used a vacuum chamber to lower the boiling point of the liquid, and stacked the different pans of juice for more efficient heat transfer. Crucially, the entire operation was sealed off from the slaves, who would no longer have to handle the hot liquid, and losses due to spills and burning were greatly reduced.
A status between a slave and white man
Norbert’s machine was far better than the existing methods of the day, but opening a refinery with his technique would prove far from straightforward. As a ‘free man of colour’, he had a status between that of a slave and that of a white man, but he nonetheless encountered prejudice from his wealthy white clients. According to one contemporary, he was “the most sought after engineer in Louisiana” but could not be entertained in the homes of many of his clients. Even when he was employed as a consultant engineer, plantation owners would provide a special house (with slaves as servants) for him to live in, rather than accommodate him in their own homes. One wrote later that Norbert “had to battle against prejudices of all kinds before being able to erect, even at his own cost, his first triple effect on a sugar plantation in Louisiana”
Eventually Norbert was able to build a refinery with his influential business partner, Judah Benjamin, and it was soon clear that the sugar produced using his method was greatly superior. Many of the plantations in Louisiana converted to Norbert‘s technology, vastly increasing sugar production for the state.
Sadly for Norbert, racial tensions in New Orleans deepened as the country moved towards civil war and the rights for 'free people of colour' were curtailed from 1850 onwards. By 1855 it was illegal for people of colour to move around New Orleans without the permission of a white man, with several years of hard labour as the punishment. Reportedly, the last straw for Norbert was when a patent clerk refused to grant him a patent for one of his inventions, on the grounds that he must be a slave and was therefore ineligible. He moved back to France around 1860, apparently embittered by his experiences in Louisiana, and took up the study of hieroglyphics instead; he worked for the next decade at the Bibliothèque National.
Apart from one brief foray into extraction of sugar from sugar beets, he never worked on sugar again. He died in 1894 at the age of 88, in Paris. His contribution to the sugar industry has since been recognised by the International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists, and the technology he pioneered is now used in everything from desalination of water to recycling on the International Space Station.
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Images courtesy of the Collections of the Louisiana State Museum, gift of Dr C. A. Browne
Published November 2014