Norbert Rillieux: All the Sugar that You Eat and a Bizarre Twist

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Norbert Rillieux

Norbert Rillieux (undated)

If you like sweets, eat sweets, or give gifts of made sugar, you have Norbert Rillieux to thank. His story is remarkable and his legacy regarding cane sugar in specific and sugar in general is profound.  He was born in 1806; his mother was a free woman of color, and his father, Vincent Rillieux, a European American plantation owner and inventor. At that time, 25 percent of African Americans in New Orleans were free and mixed couples often raised families together.

Rillieux was a precocious student – so precocious his father sent him to the famous l’École Centrale in Paris where he studied engineering. At twenty-four, he became the youngest instructor of applied mechanics and later, back home, developing a multiple effect steam-operated evaporator that turned raw sugar into sugar crystals.

Rillieux’s Evaporator System

Rillieux’s Evaporator System

At the time, sugarcane production relied on something called the “Jamaica Train”: a process where slaves ladled scorching sugarcane juice from one boiling container to another. Frequently, these workers were scalded to death or endured debilitating burns. Then came Rillieux’s system, where the evaporator did the work, saving lives, enhancing the quality of sugar and expediting the timing of the sugar evaporating process.

In short, it was of the same magnitude as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. And here is the bizarre twist: Rillieux became the most sought-after engineer in Louisiana: evaporator was embraced by widely by such persons as the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin. Yet, as a “person of color,” he couldn’t sleep at the plantation as a guest or, in some cases, even dine there. As the Civil War drew near, Rillieux faced an increasing number of restrictions, such as the loss of his right to walk along the street. So, Rillieux moved back to France where he died in 1894 and was buried in the famed Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise.

Degas, Suffering City of New Orleans

Degas, Suffering City of New Orleans

Eli Whitney has made his way into the annals of history. Norbert Rillieux is forgotten.  But, an interesting footnote is this: In 1872, French impressionist painter, Edgar Degas was suffering from a bout of artist’s block. So, he decided to visit the home of American relatives in New Orleans. Louisiana, still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War, somehow inspired Degas and fueled some of his finest paintings. The home had belonged to Vincent Rillieux, Senior.  His son, Vincent, Jr, was Norbert’s father. Degas and Norbert Rillieux were cousins.

Source:

Author’s Book “Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure.” (Prometheus, 2016)

“I have always held that Rillieux’s invention is the greatest in the history of American chemical engineering and I know of no other invention that has brought so great a saving to all branches of chemical engineering.”

— Charles A. Browne (1870-1947), Sugar Chemist, U.S. Department of Agriculture

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One Response

  1. Robin K. says:

    Dear Ms. Benjamin:
    So glad to find your website. Visited your candy shop a few years ago – what fun!

    Love all the articles you have on this site. Keep up the fantastic research as I never knew history of candy could be so darn interesting! Historical confections will now be my concurrent interest along with my fascination with colonial and Civil War studies.

    Got to get caught up with all your archived documents on this website now!
    Take care and prosperity to you and your husband.
    PS…..Saw you and your husband featured on Ghosts of Shepherdstown last year. Wow, glad to know I am not the only one that has experienced “experiences” of the supernatural. You know, if you have a college degree one is supposed to “know better” than to believe in that “stuff”. Ha-Ha. As they say, we didn’t know radio waves and microwaves were in the atmosphere until we developed instruments of detection. Now physicists are starting to discover that there are multiple realities and consciousness/thought creates everything every moment; infinite and continuous manifestations. Over a lot of drinks, I just discovered that a long time friend (and prominent, genius-level) attorney has had experiences of the “other dimensions” and just couldn’t tell anyone. Now she is menopausal and decided that she can be herself and go to ‘ghost’ conferences, etc. and really get into it. Pretty cool! Amazing how many people, even friends, are afraid to say, “Hey, I’ve had some weird experiences, too.” Hopefully more folks will have the courage to say, in effect, the world is not flat, folks! Lose the fear and all kinds of experiences can open up to us. The rabbi down the street just came ‘out of the Spirit closet’ so-to-speak about his encounters, so there is definitely a shift going on in collective consciousness, I suppose.

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