Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Husband's Ancestor -- An American Inventor

My husband's father's family came from Germany in the late 1700s and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. In the late 1800s, one of them became mayor of New Orleans and later governor of the state of Louisiana, but that's another story. The story I want to tell today, in honor of Black History Month, is of an ancestor on his mother's side, named Norbert Rillieux, 1806 - 1894. 
To quote Wikipedia: 'Mr. Rillieux was an American inventor
and engineer who is most noted for his invention of the multiple-effect evaporator, en energy-efficient means of evaporating water. This invention was an important development in the growth of the sugar industry. Rillieux was a cousin of the painter Edgar Degas.'

Norbert Rillieux's father was a wealthy white plantation owner, engineer, and inventor; his mother an African-American woman, who is sometimes is referred to as a slave, but in most accounts as a free person of color. His aunt, Marie Celeste Rillieux, was the grandmother of the painter Edgar Degas. Norbert was also related to Bernard Soulie, one of the wealthiest free black men in Louisiana at the time.

As a Creole, Norbert Rillieux was able to get a good education in Louisiana, where he was educated at private Catholic schools. He later traveled to France and studied physcis, mechanics, and engineering at the École Centrale. Fluent in French, he became an expert in steam engines and was also a skilled blacksmith and machinist. 
The process of refining sugar was slow and expensive in the 1800s. While still in France, Norbert Rillieux began looking into ways of improving this process. He continued his work upon his return to New Orleans and patented his evaporator machine in 1843. I'm not going to describe this machine or what is has meant to the sugar industry, but if you are interested, please check Wikipedia here.  Suffice it to say that the new machine was so efficient that sugar makers soon covered the cost of the evaporators with the huge profits from the sugar produced by them. 

From the Internet
Norbert Rillieux also attempted to apply his engineering skills to dealing with an outbreak of Yellow Fever in New Orleans, presenting the city with a plan that would to a great extent eliminate mosquito breeding grounds. His plan was turned down by a state legislator, who had become his enemy. However, several years later the ongoing Yellow Fever problem was successfully addressed by white engineers, using a method very close to what Rillieux had proposed. 

Norbert Rillieux spent his later years in Paris where began a study of Egyptology and hieroglyphics. He also created new inventions and spent time defending his patents. 
Norbert Rillieux died in Paris in 1894 and is buried there. He left behind a legacy that revolutionized the sugar industry and thereby the way the world eats. 
And I can testify to the fact that my mother-in-law was extremely fond of sugar, as is my husband to this day. 
This time, the flu shot didn't protect me and I came down with this flu my husband has been fighting for several days. I haven't had a flu in over 20 years and I'm a huge fan of flu shots. But nothing is perfect and I feel really awful, so I wanted to let you know that I will not post anything here until I get better. Have a nice rest of the week everyone.


  1. Very interesting family history and what a fascinating man. It amazes me that at that time and with his background he was able to accomplish the not only the work that he did, but the education he obtained. Miraculous and wonderful given the culture of the day.

    I do hope you have a mild dose of the flu and 'up and at ' em' soon -- the fact that you have had a shot may very well help.

  2. What a brilliant man your husband's ancestor was!! Is that where he got his smarts?

    I hope you two weren't contagious when we had our lunch! Feel better SOON!!

  3. what a wonderful family heritage!!! awesome! thanks for sharing!

    and i hope you and hubby will get better! get lots of rest and fluids!

  4. I love to read about people's ancestors. Norbert sounds like he was one smart guy!
    I am so sorry to hear that you have the flu - yeeuck!
    I'm glad we can't catch it from the computer!
    Stay warm. I hope those aches and chills go away soon. Take care!

  5. Ancestors can be so interesting, and this one certainly is. I hope you feel better soon.


  6. Vilken intressant historia! Förstod att din man måste härstamma från Tyskland. Min mamma kom från Tyskland med men jag är född i Sverige.
    Vi är förskylda med här. Krya på dig! Kram!

  7. What an interesting story! Thank you for sharing it. I hope that you feel better soon. I too, am a fan of flu shots, because I used to get the flu all the time, but since getting flu shots, I haven't gotten it once. Knock wood. Anyway, rest up and be kind to yourself.

  8. Important as it was for you to share your honey's history, Inger, PLEASE take care of yourself with "that" flu. Although I hear that once you've had the shot, it doesn't hit you as hard. Rest & drink lots of fluids...:)JP

  9. Really interesting ancestor! I do hope you feel better. I have had the flu once....and that was enough for a lifetime.

  10. I'm so sorry to hear you have the flu. I hope you get well soon.
    What a fine ancestor!

  11. Hi Inger - just hope you both get better soon - rest up - I loved the story of your husband's ancestor - so interesting to read ..

    Cheers Hilary

  12. Dear Inger,
    This posting was so interesting! I enjoy always reading history, learning about the past--whether that past be about ancestors or places or events. And to learn about a man who did so much for so many is wonderful. And to think, he's a relative of yours. I don't think there are any famous people in my background. And my family seldom talked about the past, so even if there were, I probably wouldn't know. Thank you for this engrossing story.


  13. PS to Inger.
    I so hope you feel better soon. The flu can hang around for a long time--10 days or more. So resist coming back to blogging too soon. We'll all be waiting for your return--as a well person!

    Peace from Dee

  14. Your husband must be very proud of his lineage! Very interesting and smart fellow this Norbert was.

    I am a believer too in flu shots...I hate being know how sickmen can be I am sure!! Hope you both recover very soon. See you when you get back.

  15. Fascinating story of an interesting man, delightfully told. Thanks.

    Sorry you're experiencing the flu. Not fun at all.

  16. A fascinating story -- so many untold stories out there, especially of women and minorities.

    Loved the post on fishducky -- and those beautiful stained glass irises and the wonderful Victorian houses.

  17. Hi, Inger. I just saw your comment at Kittie Howard's place about getting out of the blogger award business. YES! I responded to awards way back, almost two years ago, when I started blogging. But these things just get to be too much. I do, however, try to keep in touch with bloggers who have become my special friends (you're one of them!). Beyond that . . . well, lately my energy is dwindling. And I had to fire my daughter's aide and find another one. It's been a horrible, stressful week for me and Jen. Like you, I have other things in my life to attend to besides blogging!

    I had a flu shot and didn't get the flu, but I know it's not because of the shot which doesn't cover everything. Nothing is perfect as you say! I'm SO sorry you're ill. Just take as much time away from blogging as you need. This very interesting post will be here that much longer for those who want to stop by and visit.

    Take care! Your Friend, Ann
    Ann Best, Memoir Author of In the Mirror & Imprisoned

  18. An interesting history. Your husband has a few famous people in his family genealogy.

  19. It sound like he was a very clever man. It would be lovely to do something that makes a real difference to the world. Your husband's family must be very proud of him.

    I hope you're starting to feel much better now. I had the flu jab last year as Mr A was so ill and they didn't want me to infect him. I didn't even get a sniffle all year. They said I wasn't entitled this year and I've had colds and all sorts. Might pay for one next year... although it hasn't helped you... or would you have been worse without it?

  20. What an interesting post. I see it was posted back on the 23rd and you talked about not feeling good. Hope all is well and you are over the flu.

    I enjoyed the post.


Thanks for leaving a comment.. ~~ Inger


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