Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), a free black man, invented the first successful multiple effect vacuum process for producing sugar. Born and raised in New Orleans, Rillieux was sent by his wealthy parents to engineering school in Paris. Young Rillieux was an outstanding student and after graduating from L'Ecole Centrale, taught at the school. Rillieux soon became interested in the processes of thermal dynamics and steam power. By 1830 he was already experimenting with a multiple effect vacuum evaporator. He returned to New Orleans from France and developed a vacuum evaporator specifically designed for processing sugar from sugar cane.
It took him several years to convince local planters to try it. A first effort at the plantation of Zenon Ramon in 1834 never got off the ground, but in 1843 Rillieux installed his system on the "Myrtle Grove" plantation owned by Theodore Packwood. By 1844 the widely known manufacturers Merrick & Towne in Philadelphia were offering planters a selection of three different vacuum evaporator systems. Planters were able to select systems capable of producing 6000, 12,000, or 18,000 pounds of sugar per day. In 1846 Rillieux was able to convince several planters to install them on the sugar factories on their plantations. The vacuum evaporators proved so efficient that planters were able to cover the costs of the new equipment with the expanded profits from the sugar cane processed under Rillieux's system. Promotional testimonials included those from planters Judah P. Benjamin and Theodore Packwood.
Norbert Rillieux's patent model of the vacuum evaporation system for producing sugar was donated by Bert Vorchheimer and Carol Wertheimer Vorchheimer in 1993.
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Brodie, James Michael. 1993. Created equal: the lives and ideas of Black American innovators. New York: W. Morrow.
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Pursell, Carroll W. 2005. A hammer in their hands a documentary history of technology and the African-American experience. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Sluby, Patricia Carter. 2004. The inventive spirit of African Americans: patented ingenuity. Westport, Conn: Praeger.
African American engineers
African American inventors
Free African Americans
Sugar--Manufacture and refining
Permanent Collection, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum