Norbert Rillieux (March 17, 1806-October 8, 1894) was an African-American inventor and engineer who invented a device that revolutionized sugar processing. Rillieux’s multiple effect vacuum sugar evaporator (patented in 1864) made the processing of sugar more efficient, faster, and much safer. The resulting sugar was also superior. His apparatus was eventually adopted by sugar processing plants all around the world.
Rillieux was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. His mother had been a slave and his father was a wealthy white sugar plantation owner. Norbert’s brilliance was noticed early in his life. He was educated in Paris, France, and later taught engineering in Paris. Rillieux published many steam engineering papers.
While in Paris, Rillieux learned that the boiling point of liquids is reduced as the pressure is reduced (like in a vacuum). Rillieux applied this to the processing of sugar, heating the cane sugar in a vacuum, and re-using the steam in the processing procedure. This resulted in a highly efficient mechanical process that replaced the old, laborious, dangerous, and costly method of processing sugar by hand that was called the “Jamaica train.”