Norbert Rillieux

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Robert Norbert Rillieux (March 18,1806-October 8, 1894), inventor and engineer, is most noted for inventing the multiple-effect evaporator, an energy-efficient means of evaporating water. This invention was an important development in the growth of the sugar industry.

Rillieux was born a free quadroon ("quadroon libre") in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of a successful French-born planter/engineer and a former slave. It is unknown whether his freedom was inherited, as would be the case if his mother had been freed prior to his birth, or specifically granted by his father.

As a free Creole of Color, Norbert was able to access education and privileges not available to lower-status blacks or slaves. He started out as a blacksmith, then became an expert machinist. He moved to Paris, where he taught applied mechanics and published papers on improved design and uses for the steam engine. For 10 years he moved back and forth from Paris to New Orleans as he worked out the details of his ideas to apply steam engine powered vacuum pump to refining sugar. Early models were found of great use in Louisiana starting in 1846, and his perfected machinery was introduced in 1854 and revolutionized the production of sugar.

He settled permanently in Paris, France in the 1850s, and designed machinery that improved the production of beet sugar, glue, and soap. As a hobby, Rillieux researched Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Rillieux was a cousin (via a white Creole ancestor) of painter Edgar Degas.

Norbert Rillieux is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

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