Norbert Rillieux
"Free Man of Color"

   As 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. She had 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 works.

    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. 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 support.

   As 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.

   Some 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 years.

"Blue prints of Norbert Rillieux's
sugar machine"

Taken from:
"Degas in New Orleans"

Author: Christopher Benfey

Other Famous Creoles:

Norbert Rillieux
"Invented the pan method of processing sugar which revolutionized the sugar industry"