Insights > How Sweet it Is … Norbert Rillieux, Sugar Savant

How Sweet it Is … Norbert Rillieux, Sugar Savant


Do you love beignets as much as we do? In part, we all have New Orleanian Norbert Rillieux to thank for their lip-smacking sweetness.
Do you love beignets as much as we do? In part, we all have New Orleanian Norbert Rillieux to thank for their lip-smacking sweetness.

New Orleanian Norbert Rillieux, born into a prominent Creole family in 1806, was the son of an inventor. As such, he showed an interest in engineering and is widely considered to be one of the first notable chemical engineers. In honor of Black History Month, we salute his ingenuity and his major contribution to the sugar industry.

  • Raised in New Orleans, he was sent to finish his education in Paris, France. Rillieux was the son of inventor Vincent Rillieux, who was known for designing a steam-operated press for bailing cotton, and Constance Vivant, a free person of color. He also was the cousin of renowned French impressionist painter Edgar Degas. Following his early education at private schools in Louisiana, and due to his early interest in engineering, his father sent him to France to further his education.

  • By the age of 24, he was an instructor in applied mechanics. Rillieux taught applied mechanics at the Ecole Central in Paris. While in France, he published a series of papers on steam engines and steam power. He also began working on the multiple-effect evaporator with vacuum. This invention harnessed the energy of vapors rising from boiling sugar cane syrup and passed those vapors through several chambers, leaving nothing but sugar crystals. He returned to New Orleans in the early 1830s, bringing his invention to Louisiana sugar planters.

  • He is recognized as one of the prime architects of the modern sugar industry. Prior to Rillieux’s safer, cheaper and more efficient invention, sugar cane juice was evaporated using the 18th-century Caribbean method known as the Jamaica train, where teams of slaves ladled the boiling juice from one iron sugar kettle to others of decreasing size. The resulting sugar was of low quality, and much sugar cane juice was lost during transfer. However, Rillieux’s evaporator was quickly embraced by Louisiana sugar planters. The industry realized a corresponding boom. Rillieux improved his evaporator over the next 10 years. In 1846, lawyer and sugar planter Judah Benjamin wrote that sugar produced with Rillieux’s invention was outstanding and equal to “the best double-refined sugar of our northern refineries.”

  • Due to tensions related to the Civil War, Rillieux returned to Paris, where he lived out his days. The success of his evaporator made him “the most sought-after engineer in Louisiana” according to a contemporary. But Rillieux noticed the increasing tensions around him and deterioration of the status of free people of color as the Civil War approached. It has been speculated that because of those factors, and the declining profitability of the Louisiana sugar industry at that time, Rillieux moved back to Paris. There, he pursued other interests and lived with his wife, Emily Cuckow, until his death in 1894.

Rillieux’s multiple-effect evaporator had lasting, positive effects. In fact, his invention was designated in 2002 as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony at Dillard University in New Orleans. The commemorative plaque reads:

Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) revolutionized sugar processing with the invention of the multiple-effect evaporator under vacuum. Rillieux’s great scientific achievement was his recognition that at reduced pressure the repeated use of latent heat would result in the production of better quality sugar at lower cost. One of the great early innovations in chemical engineering, Rillieux’s invention is widely recognized as the best method for lowering the temperature of all industrial evaporation and for saving large quantities of fuel.

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Charlotte J. Cavell