Norbert Rillieux and the Invention of Sugar Processing

Early sugar farming and processing by slaves in the West Indies, 1753. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

If anyone can be said to have "invented" sugar as we know it, it's Norbert Rillieux, a biracial son of a former slave who created a safer, more efficient method of processing sugar. 

Early Life

Norbert Rillieux was born in New Orleans in 1806. His father was a white, French engineer and a plantation farmer. His father was in what would now be considered a common-law marriage with a former slave. The biracial son of a common-law marriage, Rillieux did not enjoy the full social status white people had at the time in New Orleans.

Nevertheless, because he was Creole, he was able to avail himself of an education not available to black people at the time. He studied at private Catholic schools until his father sent him to France, where he studied engineering. 

Sugar Processing

At the time, sugar refining was a time-consuming, dangerous, labor-intensive process, involving the handling of boiling hot liquids. Slaves on sugar plantations performed most of the work, and thus were exposed to considerable risk. The process was also inefficient and costly, as much of the sugar was burned off due to the imprecision of the heating process.

While studying engineering, Rillieux became interested in improving the process. When members of his family helped launch a new sugar refinery in Louisiana, Rillieux returned home to serve as chief engineer.

The enterprise was a financial failure—crumbling under divisions between the family and their partner, Edmund Forstall.

Rillieux, however, did not give up. And in 1843, he patented a machine that could perform a multiple-effect evaporation. Simply put, it utilized air pressure to lower the boiling point inside his machine, so that lower and more easily controlled temperatures were required to produce enough steam to heat multiple trays of sugarcane.

 

Rillieux's inventions increased sugar production and reduced production costs. However, the most important thing was that his inventions protected lives by ending the older, dangerous methods of sugar production.

Rillieux later returned to France where he continued working on his inventing and published papers on the uses of steam and the steam engine. He died in 1894.

A memorial to him can still be seen today at the Louisiana State Museum.