Inventor of the Week Archive
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Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894)
Sugar Processing Evaporator
Norbert Rillieux was born the son of a wealthy, white New Orleans plantation
owner and his black slave mistress. At Norbert's birth, his father had the
choice of declaring him free or, as was the custom in such instances, a slave.
Thankfully for Norbert, his father broke tradition and made him free, entitling
him to education and privileges usually reserved for entirely white people.
Growing up, he took great interest in the workings of the plantation and
witnessed the inefficiency of the sugar-making process and the brutal labor that
slaves endured in it.
Sugar cane juice was heated in a series of open kettles and pans called the
"Jamaica Train," where slaves poured juice from container to container with
long-handled ladles. The work was hard, hot and dangerous.
Studying engineering in Paris, Rillieux learned that the boiling point of
liquids is reduced as atmospheric pressure is reduced. This made Rillieux think
that the evaporation of sugar on his father's plantation could be done more
efficiently if the cane juice was heated in a vacuum. He also thought that the
steam from one vessel could be used to heat the juice in the next vessel.
The invention he came up with and patented -- the multiple effect pan evaporator --
was a great success. Not only did it make better sugar, but it saved countless
workers around the world from working in highly dangerous conditions.