Sugar evaporator patented

copy of blueprint patent
Thu, 1846-12-10

On this date in 1846, Norbert Rillieux, a Black inventor and engineer, patented his revolutionary improvement in the cultivation and processing of sugar.

Rillieux was born into an aristocratic Creole family in New Orleans. He was the son of Vincent Rillieux, a white plantation owner, engineer and inventor, and his placée, Constance Vivant, a Free Person of Color. As a Creole, Norbert had access to education and privileges not available to lower-status blacks or slaves.

Before his invention, sugar was an expensive luxury, used only on special occasions. The process used to make sugar, known as the Jamaica Train, was a slow, dangerous, and expensive task, usually performed by slaves. They would work over open, boiling kettles, ladling sugarcane juice from one container to another. A large number of workers were scalded to death and others received terrible burns. The final product of this process was a dark thick syrupy substance, resembling caramel rather than the granulated form known today. The syrupy sugar was poured into cones to dry and was bought and sold in this condition.

Rillieux had begun developing a method for refining sugar into crystallized granules between 1834 and 1843, when he patented it. The concept for Rillieux’s evaporation process is a multiple-effect operation in which a series of vacuum pans heat one another in sequence, thus controlling the overall temperature and producing the desired crystallized form. The importance of Rillieux’s invention to the American sugar-making industry cannot be overstated.

His evaporation process made it possible for the United States to dominate the world market and this process is still used for things like freeze-drying food, pigments, and other industrial products.

In 1881, at the age of 75, Rillieux made one last foray into sugar evaporation, devising a way to use his multiple effect evaporation system to extract sugar from sugar beets. Rillieux's process fixed the errors in the previous process, but Rillieux lost the rights to the patent he had filed.

Norbert Rillieux died in poverty on October 8, 1894 at the age of 88. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His wife, Emily Cuckow, died in 1912 and is buried beside him.

James M. Brodie, Created Equal: The Lives and Ideas of Black American Innovators, University of Michigan Press, 1993. Copyright 1993, by Bill Adler Books, Inc.
William Morrow and Co. Inc., New York
ISBN 0-688-11536-5

Carl W. Pursell, A Hammer in Their Hands:
A Documentary History of Technology and the African-American Experience MIT Press. 2005

Global Black Inventors