Norbert Rillieux

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Norbert Rillieux (March 17, 1806 – October 8, 1894), an American inventor and engineer, is most noted for his invention of the multiple-effect evaporator, an energy-efficient means of evaporating water. This invention was an important development in the growth of the sugar industry. Rillieux was a cousin of the painter Edgar Degas.



Rillieux was born into a prominent Creole family in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the son of Vincent Rillieux, a white plantation owner, engineer and inventor, and his placée, Constance Vivant, a free person of color. Norbert was the oldest of seven children. His siblings were: Barthelemy, Edmond, Marie Eugenie, Louis, Marie Eloise, and Cecile Virginie. Norbert's aunt on his father's side, Marie Celeste Rillieux, was the grandmother of painter Edgar Degas. His aunt on his mother's side, Eulalie Vivant, was the mother of Bernard Soulie, one of the wealthiest Gens de Couleur Libre in Louisiana.

Early life

As a Creole, Norbert had access to education and privileges not available to lower-status blacks or slaves. Baptized Roman Catholic, Rillieux received his early education at private Catholic schools before traveling to Paris, France in the early 1820s to attend the famous Parisian school, École Centrale. While at École Centrale, Norbert studied physics, mechanics, and engineering. He became an expert in steam engines and published several papers about the use of steam to work devices. These early explorations became the foundation of the technology he would later implement in his evaporator. At 24, Rillieux became the youngest teacher at École Centrale, instructing in applied mechanics. He was also a competent blacksmith, an expert machinist and fluent in French.

Sugar refining

In the early part of the 1800s, the process for sugar refinement was slow, expensive, and inefficient. First, the sugarcane juice was pressed and extracted from the cane before workers used the "Jamaica Train" method of forming sugar from the juice. The workers, who were mostly slaves, poured the sugarcane juice into the largest kettle, where it was left until most of the water evaporated. Then they continued to pour the resultant thick liquid into smaller and smaller pots as the liquid continued to thicken. Each time the liquid was poured, some of the sugar was lost. A considerable amount of sugar was also burned because it was difficult to monitor and maintain appropriate heat levels for the pots. The process was also dangerous for the workers, who had routinely to transfer the hot liquid.

While in France, Rillieux started researching ways to improve the process of sugar refining. Meanwhile, back in Louisiana, Norbert's brother, Edmond, a builder, along with their cousin, Norbert Soulie, an architect, began working with Edmund Forstall to build a new Louisiana Sugar Refinery. In 1833, Forstall, having heard about Rillieux's research into sugar refining, offered him the position of Head Engineer at the not-yet-completed sugar refinery. Rillieux accepted the offer and returned to Louisiana to take up his new position. However, the sugar refinery was never completed due to disagreements between the principals, mainly Edmond Rillieux, his father, Vincent Rillieux, and Edmund Forstall. These disagreements created long-term resentments between the Rillieux family and Edmund Forstall.

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