Rillieux, Norbert

Rillieux, Norbert

(1806–94) engineer, inventor; born in New Orleans. Son of a wealthy sugar plantation owner and one of his slaves, he was fully accepted by his father and given the educational, cultural, and material advantages of a white youth. He was sent to Paris to obtain an engineering degree and stayed on to teach at his college, L'Ecole Central. During the next few years, while publishing a series of papers on steam engines, he invented a special steam-based device to evaporate the juice of the sugar cane to produce sugar. He returned to New Orleans and obtained a patent for his device in 1843. He also took a job with a plantation owner and made a prototype of his evaporator; it had many problems, but he worked on improving it and took another patent in 1846. This improved version soon caught on in Louisiana and the West Indies and helped to increase sugar production; it is the basis of the vacuum pan evaporators used in many agricultural products processes to this day. Rillieux enjoyed a modest profit from his invention and turned his attention to improving the sewage disposal system of New Orleans. But since he was still subjected to the discriminatory laws against African-Americans, in 1854 he went back to Paris and took up his faculty post at L'Ecole Central and eventually became its headmaster. He continued to be a highly regarded engineer in France and Europe and in later years contributed to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was conveniently dropped from American history until in 1934 a plaque honoring his contribution was placed in the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.