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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.

[Sept. 1996]

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