Monday, February 24, 2020

Black History Month ~ Norbert Rillieux, An American Inventor

This is an edited version of a story I posted several years ago in honor of Black History Month.

Errol had 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 physics, 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. 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. 

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 he 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 both Errol and my mother-in-law were extremely fond of sugar and all things sweet.


  1. Thank you. Do you have any other accounts about him? Interesting man, and it doesn't need to be just in February. I'd love more.

    1. No I don't and both my husband and my mother-in-law are deceased, so I can't get any more family history from them. But I have some other tales to tell about my husband's family.

  2. What a facinating man and how cool to be in his tree.

  3. truly a fascinating story and a perfect post for this month. although I did think, we might be better off and have less diabetes if he had left the sugar harder to produce... of course humans have a knack for taking something good and doing unhealthy things with it. great post

    1. He apparently did the right thing for mosquito control to stop yellow fever, even if it wasn't applied at the time.

  4. I like learning new things, and didn't know any of this!

  5. Where would we be without his invention?

  6. Hi Inger - I missed your earlier post ... but how very interesting ... especially the intertwining of peoples - gosh what an amazing history, yet of course, so difficult at the time. History and people's backgrounds can be so enlightening ... gosh loved learning this - thank you ... and I see you perhaps have more at some stage. Fabulous - thank you - cheers Hilary

  7. what an interesting and wonderful man!
    I hope he was happy in Paris. I have a feeling he was. he was OUR loss. THEIR gain.

    'the land of the free. IF you're white and wealthy and have the right political connections.'
    "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."
    I enjoyed this wonderful story Inger. thank you!

  8. Sounds like your late husband's family history is very intriguing. I enjoyed this post!

  9. Very interesting. I'll have to call this to Carol's attention.



Thanks for leaving a comment.. ~~ Inger


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