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Mon, 03.17.1806

Engineer and inventor Norbert Rillieux born

Norbert Rillieux

*This date marks the birth of Norbert Rillieux in 1806. He was an African American inventor and engineer whose patented inventions revolutionized the sugar refining industry.

Born free in New Orleans, Norbert Rillieux’s mother was Black and his father, a French engineer and plantation owner. After studying engineering at L’École Centrale, Rillieux became the school’s youngest instructor ever in the department of applied mechanics. There, he published many papers on steam technology. Rillieux returned to Louisiana in 1840 and, three years later patented the multiple-effect vacuum pan evaporator. This device heated the sugar cane juice in a partial vacuum, reducing its boiling point, allowing much greater fuel efficiency.

This innovation, adopted in sugar refining, escalated production, reduced the price, and was responsible for transforming sugar into a household item. Similar technology was subsequently developed for the production of soap, gelatin, and glue. Some have called Rillieux’s evaporator the greatest invention in the history of American chemical engineering. When post-Reconstruction conditions proved oppressive in Louisiana for African-Americans, Rillieux returned to Paris, serving as headmaster at L’École Centrale. He began to study Egyptology and helped decipher hieroglyphics. Norbert Rillieux died in 1894.

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

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