African Amerian History Fact #3 Norbert Rillieux

Sugar Chemist and Inventor


Norbert Rillieux revolutionized the sugar industry by inventing a refining process that reduced the time, cost, and safety risk involved in producing good sugar from cane and beets.

The son of a French planter/engineer and a slave mother, Rillieux was born in New Orleans and educated in France, where he majored in engineering and also served as an instructor.

Returning to New Orleans, he noted that methods for refining sugar from cane and beets were crude, backbreaking and dangerous, requiring slaves to ladle boiling cane juice from one kettle to another to produce a dark sugar. Rillieux designed an evaporating pan which enclosed a series of condensing
coils in vacuum chambers. His system took much of the hand labor out of refining, saved fuel because the juice boiled at lower temperatures, and produced a superior product.

Rillieux's device was patented in 1846, and was in great demand on plantations in Louisiana, Mexico and the West Indies, where it increased sugar production and reduced operating costs.

Additional Biographical Material about Norbert Rillieux: Sugar Chemist and Inventor

The birth record on file in the City Hall of New Orleans describes the birth of a son to an engineer and a slave on his plantation. "Norbert Rillieux, quadroon libre, natural son of Vincent Rillieux and Constance Vivant. Born March 17, 1806. Baptized in St. Louis Cathedral by Pere Antoine." It is not known whether the child was specially freed or whether his mother was already free, but the latter is the more probable. Norbert Rillieux was a free man in New Orleans in the Early 18th century. The term quadroon was commonly used to mean any person who was more than half white. There are indications that Norbert Rillieux was one-eighth colored blood. The fact that the baptism took place in the cathedral and that the father's surname was given him and not the mother's may have been usual for such affiliation between a slave owner and the women at that time.

The father, Vincent Rillieux, was an engineer and inventor. A steam-operated cotton baling press which was installed in a cotton warehouse on Poudras Street was one of his inventions of sufficient merit to be mentioned in the notes published at the time of his son's death. The father recognized the boy's ability at an early age and sent Norbert to Paris to be educated. This was not unusual as many well-to-do Louisiana quadroons of the time were educated in France.


In the Louisiana phase of Spain's war against England during the American Revolution, a Vincent Rillieux (who was either Norbert's father or grandfather) played a gallant part. In 1779, as commander of a Spanish ship with a crew of fourteen Creoles, he captured an English transport and made prisoners of the fifty-six soldiers it was carrying. John Caughey, Bernardo de Galvez in Louisiana, 1776-1783 (Berkeley, CA), 1934. p. 161, 163.

Most of the details of Rillieux's student life in France come from Horsin-Deon, a noted French sugar technologist and engineer and friend of Rillieux during the last half of the nineteenth century. Evidently the young Rillieux showed rare aptitude for engineering since at age twenty-four he was an instructor in applied mechanics at L'Ecole Centrale in Paris. In 1830 he published a series of papers on steam engine work and steam economy. At this time, according to Horsin-Deon, it was at this time he developed the theory of the multi-effect evaporator. Unfortunately, none of Rillieux's original publications has survived but, according to French sources, the work was well developed and of high quality.

P. Horsin-Deon, served as Rillieux's secretary in France and later editor of the journal L'Accol et Sucre, states that although Rillieux had the help of two friends in the Ramon plantation experiment in 1834. "The death of his instructor, Donat, prevented the test of his first triple effect ...."

The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer, XIII [Nov. 24, 1894], p. 331.

Few details of Rillieux's social status as a free man of color are known. In a story from P. Horsin-Deon, Rillieux was housed in the slave quarters on some plantations that his work required him to visit, but this was an exaggeration. Direct evidence from a man whose father knew Rillieux and employed him on his plantation as an engineer indicates that the color problem was met by providing a special house with slave servants for the inventor on his visits as a consultant. According to Horsin-Deon, he was "the most sought after engineer in Louisiana," but because of his colored blood he could not be entertained at the owner's house of in the home of any white person.

Rillieux's own reminiscences, as transcribed through Horsin-Deon, do not refer to injustices because of his color, but there can be no doubt that he was subjected to restriction and possibly indignities. The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer, XIII [Nov. 24, 1894], p. 331.

Free people of color were increasingly more restrained with the approach of the Civil War, although they never reached the status of slaves. Among other prerogatives free people of color included,

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  • m 2009/03/11 17:17:55
    Great post and history lesson! Thank you, Tresor!
  • BK 2009/02/25 18:39:48
    Wait, I thought Willy Wonka did all that...
  • dreaminon 2009/02/10 10:36:44
    Very interesting post, as usual for you. Hope people appreciate it.
  • Chocola... dreaminon 2009/02/10 12:18:23
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    Thank you, dreaminon.
  • TopShelf® (oyo) 2009/02/09 23:50:30
    TopShelf® (oyo)
    that was so very outstanding,tresor.keep up the good work.
  • Chocola... TopShel... 2009/02/09 23:51:12
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    Thank you, Babe!
  • TopShel... Chocola... 2009/02/10 00:53:35
    TopShelf® (oyo)
    the pleasure was mine.this is an example of what black history month should produce.
  • Chocola... TopShel... 2009/02/10 00:59:38
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    Totally agree. Please share my blogs.
  • TopShel... Chocola... 2009/02/10 01:25:13
    TopShelf® (oyo)
    with pleasure.
  • Chocola... TopShel... 2009/02/10 02:03:32
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    I just posted on George Washington Carver!!!!
  • Ms.NY 2009/02/08 23:26:02 (edited)

    Although Rillieux's invention made him wealthy, his life was severely limited after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Even though he was free, it was difficult to distinguish between free people of color and those who were slaves or fugitives. In 1854, when he was forced to carry a pass to travel around New Orleans, he left the country and returned to France, taking up archeology and deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. When he was 75, he invented a more effective method of processing sugar beets, but when he died in Paris in 1894, the French still had not given him credit for his original sugar refining system, which was later recognized throughout Europe.

    What i fine interesting about African Americans during that time, was that they made education their priory, when the availablity was almost non-existent , but they still strived to make a difference, versus now, where oportunities are infinite, yet not utilized, to it's fullest extent, by African Americans today...

    Black History should be mandatory in every school starting from 1st. grade on up, i believe that if they knew the extent that black inventors and other blacks, played in our history, in America and other places, it would instill in them a pride, that would empower them to believe in themselves more..
  • Chocola... Ms.NY 2009/02/08 23:34:48
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    I agree!!
  • Poppy 2009/02/08 16:28:08
    Don't forget the ladies. I remember Bessie Coleman. Great life story.
  • Chocola... Poppy 2009/02/08 20:43:58
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    I thought of that today. I will post some women later today.
  • Peggy 2009/02/08 14:15:30
    You are a great teacher!
  • Chocola... Peggy 2009/02/08 14:36:56
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    Thanks, Peggy! I do love teaching but I like a more mature audience, lol!
  • Ric O'Shea® 2009/02/08 13:12:16
  • Chocola... Ric O'S... 2009/02/08 13:45:03 (edited)
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    I am not positive, but I would bet money he was fluent in both languages. Do you know the history of Quadroons? Wombmeat, If you were not married I would date you in a heartbeat!! lol. I love you!
  • Ric O'S... Chocola... 2009/02/10 02:10:03
  • Chocola... Ric O'S... 2009/02/10 02:13:12 (edited)
    Chocolat-In the universe I trust.
    rofl! Tell her I want you!!! LOL! Yes! I am going to post on them sometime this month. There is so much information I would like to share. All is important, of course, but I believe the inventions and scientist will blow a few minds.

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Chocolat-In the universe I trust.

Chocolat-In the universe I trust.

United States

2008/01/26 03:29:06

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