Black History month is filled with stories of African-Americans that are overrated. The guy who "invented" the traffic light in Cleveland really didn't. Oh he was a good businessman and he has a good story. Don't get me wrong. But he does not belong on the same level as Thomas Alva Edison.
This guy is. He helped pioneer the chemical industry, and his techniques are still in use today.
From my book, "Exceptional Americans 2: The Capitalists" (on Kindle for $2.99, and as a paperback), it is a book about Americans regardless of skin tone.
7. Norbert Rillieux, sugar daddy.
The modern sugar industry began with Christopher Columbus, the misguided sailor who set sail from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, westward to China on August 3, 1492. He got as far as Cuba. As planned, Columbus landed in the Canary Islands a short time after leaving Spain, to load up provisions, however Columbus fell in love with the land's ruler, the beautiful Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio. They had a month-long affair before he finally sailed away. She gave as a gift some sugar cane cuttings, which he planted in what he thought was land near China, but which were really the islands of San Salvador, Cuba and Hispaniola.
Within a decade, people harvested sugar on Hispaniola, and by the 1520s, Spaniards established sugar refineries in Cuba and Jamaica. The process was laborious, inefficient, and hazardous to its workers. It would be three centuries before this luxury item would be mass produced. The man responsible was Norbert Rillieux, a Creole from Louisiana, whose father, Vincent Rillieux was a wealthy plantation owner who had invented a successful steam-operated press for making bales of cotton.
Vincent Rillieux's common-law wife, Constance Vivant, was a half-white, half-black former slave. On March 17, 1806, she gave birth to the first of their seven children, Norbert Rillieux, who was a bright young man. When he was 8, his father, Vincent, fought along with Colonel Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans against the British, unaware that the War of 1812 was over.
Given that his son was quite bright and he was quite wealthy, Vincent Rillieux sent Norbert Rillieux to Paris to study at the École Centrale, a prominent engineering school. Within a short time, the student became a teacher, as he published a series of papers related to “the Functions and Economic Implications of the Steam Engine.”
Returning home in 1834, Rillieux became involved in the sugar refining on his father's plantation. In Paris, Rillieux learned that the boiling point of a liquid is lower when the pressure is lower. That is why the boiling point of water is lower at higher altitudes, where the air pressure is lower. For example, in Denver the boiling point of water is only 203° F, or 95° C. At sea level, the boiling point is 212° F, or 100° C.
“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,” according to historian Christopher Benfey.
Rillieux's device made refining sugar cheaper, which dropped the price of sugar, which made it marketable to the masses, which launched an entire industry to the next level. Using vacuums and steam was superior to -- and safer than -- using open kettles. The quality also improved as this white sugar tasted better.
His was not an overnight success. It took him nearly a decade to develop and patent his multiple-effect evaporator, which took the water out of the sugar. But when he was through, Norbert Rillieux did for sugar what Eli Whitney had done for cotton. Actually, Norbert Rillieux's invention had far greater ramifications and applications than the refinement of sugar.
“This innovation, adopted in sugar refining, escalated production, reduced the price, and was responsible for transforming sugar into a household item. Similar technology was subsequently developed for the production of soap, gelatin, and glue. Some have called Rillieux’s evaporator the greatest invention in the history of American chemical engineering,” according to historian James Michael Brodie.
Indeed, the American Chemical Society recognized the importance of his evaporator, but in its biography of Norbert Rillieux, the society also noted the political implications of his machine.
“But even though the Rillieux evaporator marked a significant advance in sugar technology, some antebellum Louisiana planters were reluctant to install the devices. The reasons had to do with the inherent contradictions in slavery. Many planters thought slaves incapable of operating sophisticated equipment. Other planters believed that teaching slaves new skills might lead to their questioning authority, which in turn could lead to rebellion. One slaveholder, Andrew Durnford, himself a free black, refused to install a Rillieux evaporator because he did not want to give up control of his people,” the society wrote.
Slavery was the opposite of capitalism, which was why Andrew Durnford's fear was so well-founded. Slavery is psychological as well as physical because it relies on slaves to feel inferior in order to allow others to control their lives. Anything that makes a slave realize he is not an animal, but rather a unique individual undermines the very premise of slavery, which is yet another reason to like Norbert Rillieux and his invention.
However, a few refineries began to open using his evaporator process. Their competitive advantage of his machinery led to a success that forced others to adopt this new technology. And the expansion of Rillieux's invention occurred not only in the Deep South of the United States. Sugar manufacturers around the world -- particularly in Cuba, Mexico, France, and Egypt -- had to acquire his patented evaporator.
Moreover, his sugar refining breakthrough had applications that went well beyond sugar production, as it came to be recognized as the best method for lowering the temperature of all industrial evaporation. This not only saved lives by making other processes safer, but his device saved large quantities of fuel, further reducing production costs in the manufacture of sugar. Multiple effect evaporation continues to be used in the 21st century in sugar production, as well as in the production of condensed milk, soap, glue, and many other products. One can see why Rillieux is considered a pioneer in chemical engineering.
Once again capitalism was doing its part to make life better for all people.
Unfortunately, intellectual theft was common in the 19th century. Rillieux’s machine was made in Philadelphia by Merrick and Towne, where an employee stole the plans and sent them to a German manufacturer who made the machines for refineries in Europe.
Rillieux had scientific interests beyond sugar and chemical engineering. He was concerned about public health.
“In the 1850s, New Orleans was suffering from an outbreak of Yellow Fever, caused by disease-carrying mosquitoes. Rillieux devised an elaborate plan for eliminating the outbreak by draining the swamplands surrounding the city and improving the existing sewer system, thus removing the breeding ground for the insects and therefore the ability for them to pass on the disease. Unfortunately, Edmund Forstall, Norbert’s former employer, was a member of the state legislature and spoke out against the plan. Forstall was able to turn sentiment against Rillieux and the plan was rejected,” according to historian Gaius Chamberlain.
Forstall also was a relative who had a falling out with Norbert Rillieux's father, which led to a long-running feud. This petty dispute cost innocent parties their lives, as Forstall delayed necessary improvements for at least a generation.
Sadly, antebellum New Orleans in the 1850s was becoming hostile to people of color as the Civil War approached. Although black people had to pay taxes, their freedom of movement was limited and they could not use many public facilities. He had to carry a pass to traverse the city. Vote? Only three states in the union allowed black people to vote by the time the Civil War erupted, and Louisiana was not among them. Norbert Rillieux returned to France in 1854, one of the first black Americans to expatriate to Paris because of a lack of civil rights in his homeland.
In Europe, he still faced prejudice, because he was an American.
“There he ran into prejudice of a different kind. Certain French engineers had misused his process. They made it look ineffective, and that hurt the good name he'd enjoyed as an engineer in America. He finally walked away from process engineering and took up archeology. Author Robert Hayden tells us that a leading American sugar planter looked Rillieux up in Paris in 1880. He found him in a library, translating Egyptian hieroglyphics,” according to historian John Lienhard.
Norbert Rillieux died in Paris on October 8, 1894, but his impact on the sugar industry was remembered back home. In his honor, a bronze memorial was erected in the Louisiana State Museum. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron in 2004.
“The great scientific contribution which Rillieux made was in his recognition of the steam economies which can be effected by repeated use of the latent heat in the steam and vapors,” sugar expert George Meade wrote in 1946.
Additionally, his invention lives on in applications unimaginable when he struggled with perfecting his multiple evaporator nearly two centuries ago.
“Norbert Rillieux's life suffered from prejudice on two sides; but he showed us a mind larger than the troubles assailing it. And today, Rillieux's evaporators are used for everything from desalting sea water to recycling processes in the space station,” John Lienhard wrote.
Columbus brought sugar to America. Norbert Rillieux brought sugar to the masses.