African Amerian History Fact #3 Norbert Rillieux
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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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