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No. 236:
Norbert Rillieux

Today, we bring high-tech to sugar cane. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Norbert Rillieux was born in New Orleans in 1806. His mother was a former slave who was, to best of our knowledge, freed before he was born, and his father was white -- not an uncommon situation in the highly mixed population of New Orleans, two hundred years ago. Norbert was very bright, so his father, an inventor himself, sent him off to the Ecole Centrale in Paris where he studied engineering. Norbert Rillieux stayed on as an instructor for a few years, and he published papers on steam power.

He also began working on a problem from back in Louisiana. The last thing you do when you make white sugar is to evaporate the water used in the refining process. That exacts a terrible cost in fuel. Norbert Rillieux put his thermodynamic knowledge to work. He invented the first multistage evaporator. By evaporating and condensing at successively lower pressures, he used the heat over and over. It was a brilliant idea.

But Rillieux was caught between two pernicious forces -- racism in America and technological conservatism in Europe. He weighed the alternatives and went back to New Orleans to work on a prototype. It was the right decision at the right time. He patented the machine in 1846 and prospered for some time. He was very highly thought of as a process engineer, and his machine revolutionized sugar refining. Finally, though, as the institution of slavery strengthened before the Civil War, the racial situation got worse. Rillieux returned to France.

And there he ran into prejudice of a different kind. Certain French engineers had misused his process. They made it look ineffective, and that hurt the good name he'd enjoyed as an engineer in America. He finally walked away from process engineering and took up archaeology. Author Robert Hayden tells us that a leading American sugar planter looked Rillieux up in Paris in 1880. He found him in a library, translating Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Still, his technical interest revived once more. At the age of 75 he patented another process -- one that cut in half the cost of processing sugar beets. Yet, when he died in Paris in 1894, his abiding disappointment was the French refusal to credit his invention of multistage evaporation. In the end, Europe finally did recognize it. In 1934, the International Sugar Cane Technologists created a memorial to this remarkable engineer.

Norbert Rillieux's life suffered from prejudice on two sides; but he showed us a mind larger than the troubles assailing it. And today, Rillieux's evaporators are used for everything from desalting sea water to recycling processes in the space station.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hayden, R.C., Black American Inventors. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1972.

For more on Norbert Rillieux, and his picture, see:

I am grateful to Jerry Freyder for subsequent and more up-to-date information about the circumstances surrounding Rillieux.