the story goes, a closely guarded secret of the Rillieux family-a secret kept
until now- was that Vincent Rillieux's other son, also called Vincent, had a liaison
with a woman of color called Constance Vivant. Vivant belonged to the Cheval family,
free blacks who had extensive holdings in land and rental properties.
several children with Vincent Rillieux, Jr. One of their sons, Norbert Rillieux,
became a leading chemical engineer of his time, whose inventions revolutionized
the sugar industry throughout the world. Another son, Edmond, was a prominent
builder and businessman who served for a time as superintendent of the city water
Birth record in the municipal archives reads:
"Norbert Rillieux, quadroon libre, natural son of Vincent Rillieux and Constance
Vivant. Born March 17, 1806. Baptized in St. Louis Cathedral by Pere Antoine."
Norbert and his mother belonged to the large caste of " free people of color"
- intermediate in rights and for the most part skin color between slaves and whites
- that made New Orleans unlike any other city in the South.
His Home in New Orleans
The free quadroon
and octoroon women - so fascinating to New Orleans writers from George Washington
Cable to William Faulkner - were in many ways dependant on white protectors for
was Norbert Rillieux, at an early age. His father, Vincent, a wealthy engineer
and inventor (and Edgar Degas's great-uncle), had designed a successful steam-operated
press for making bales of cotton; it was installed in a cotton warehouse on Poydras
Street. Norbert also showed an unusual aptitude for engineering.
By 1830, at the
age of twenty-four, the precocious Norbert was an instructor in applied mechanics
at the Ecole Centrale in Paris, publishing a series of highly regarded papers
on steam engines and steam power.
time around 1831, Norbert Rillieux made an extraordinary discovery, one that transformed
the sugar-refining process and contributed significantly to the sugar boom in
Louisiana. Traditionally, sugar cane juice was reduced by a primitive and wasteful
procedure called "Jamaica Train," which required the tedious and backbreaking
toil of many slaves, who, armed with long ladles, skimmed the boiling juice from
one open, steaming kettle to the next.
Various attempts had been made, with vacuum
pans and horizontal coils, to harness the energy of the hot vapors rising from
the boiling juice. "It remained for Rillieux," as the sugar expert George
P. Meade noted, "by a stroke of genius, to enclose the condensing coils in
a vacuum chamber that lowered the boiling point of the liquid and to employ the
vapor from this first condensing chamber for evaporating the juice in a second
chamber under higher vacuum." Rillieux cost-cutting innovation, comparable
in its impact on the sugar industry to Eli Whitney's cotton gin, was the basis
for all modern industrial evaporation. The sugar produced by the vacuum chamber
process was superior to that obtained from open kettles.
Norbert Rillieux died when he was eighty-nine, and was buried in the
cemetery of Pere La Chaise, with the inscription "Ici
reposent Norbert Rellieux ingenieur civil ne a la Nouvelle
Orleans 18 Mars 1806/decede a Paris le 8 Octobre 1894/Emily
Cuckow, Veuve Rillieux 1827-1912." Of his widow nothing
is known, except that Rillieux left her enough money to live
comfortably in the province of La Manche during her final