Local History Index

Norbert Rillieux: Architect of The Modern Sugar Industry


Inventor, Chemical Engineer


Norbert Rillieux remains the engineer who revolutionized sugar processing by inventing the multiple-effect vacuum evaporator in the 19th century. He earned recognition as a prime architect of the modern sugar industry. A biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov once said, “Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world.”

Early Life

On March 17, 1806, Norbert was born a free man in New Orleans, Louisiana. His parents were Vincent Rillieux, a white plantation owner, and Constance Vivant, an enslaved Black woman. Being a successful engineer and inventor, Vincent realized Norbert was not an ordinary child but had talent. Norbert attended some of the best schools in New Orleans. They baptized him in a Roman Catholic church.

In the early 1820s, Norbert traveled to France for his education. He studied physics, mechanics, and engineering at Ecole Centrale Paris, a top engineering institution.


At 24, Norbert worked as an applied mechanics instructor at the Ecole Centrale in Paris. In the 1830s, he produced many publications on steam engines and power. These publications formed the basis of his invention, the multiple-effect vacuum evaporator.

While still in France, Norbert started constructing the multiple-effect evaporator. The evaporator was more efficient, safer, cheaper, and required less workforce.

In the early 1830s, Norbert returned to New Orleans. In 1843, he became engaged in installing the multiple-effect evaporator on Judah Benjamin’s (Jewish lawyer) Bellechasse Plantation.

Benjamin was a staunch supporter of Norbert in the sugar circles in Louisiana. In 1846, Norbert affirmed that the Rillieux apparatus produced superb sugar. His invention made him gain an enormous fortune. Despite his achievements, he still faced intense racial discrimination regarding his abode. This contributed to him moving back to France.

Initially, his patent application was denied, following the fact that he was considered an enslaved person. Many planters were reluctant to adopt Rillieux’s evaporator. Later, however, sugar manufacturers from various countries like Mexico, Cuba, Egypt, France, and the United States, adopted it.

Between 1845 and 1855, Norbert reached the pinnacle of his success. This invention revolutionized the whole sugar manufacturing process.

Norbert had a kind relationship with the great French impressionist painter Edgar Degas. Marie Celeste Rillieux, Norbert’s aunt, was the grandmother of Edgar Degas. The Rillieux clan had a prominent link with New Orleans. Edmond, the first cousin of Degas’ mother, was the waterworks manager in New Orleans, while Norbert worked as an engineer and chemist.

Family life

Norbert was the eldest among the seven siblings (Barthelemy, Edmond, Marie Eugenie, Louis, Marie Eloise, and Cecile Virginie). He married three times, with two of his wives dying before his death. There is scanty information about his first two wives. He married Emily Cuckow (born in 1827), who lived eighteen more years after Norbert’s death. Emily Cuckow passed away in 1912 in Paris, France, and was buried next to her husband’s grave.

Other ventures

In the 1850s, Norbert considered combatting the outbreak of yellow fever in New Orleans using his engineering skills. He presented a plan to eliminate moist areas that bred mosquitoes and dry swampy areas to reduce disease spread. A state legislator, Edmund Forstall, thwarted his plan. Other engineers later used a proposal similar to Norbert’s tackling yellow fever outbreaks ravaging New Orleans.

In the late 1850s, Norbert returned to France, motivated by extreme discrimination that rejected his patent application.

In Paris, Norbert became interested in hieroglyphics and Egyptology. He spent a decade at the Bibliotheque Nationale.

In 1881, Norbert used his invention to extract sugar from sugar beets. This practice was more fuel-efficient. Norbert’s process fixed previous errors, but he lost his patent rights.


In honor of Norbert, an inscription in bronze is displayed as a memorial in the Louisiana State Museum. It had these writings: “To honor Norbert Rillieux, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, March 17, 1806, and died in Paris, France, October 8, 1894. Inventor of Multiple Evaporation and Its Application to the Sugar Industry.”

In 2002, the American Chemical Society nominated the Rillieux apparatus as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.


Norbert died in France on October 8, 1894. They buried him in the famous Paris cemetery of Pere Lachaise.

Norbert’s made a historic scientific achievement and has been recognized for producing superior sugar at lower cost and minimal energy. His invention received wide recognition as a good novelty in chemical engineering.

Norbert was a scientific genius and a visionary leader seen as one of the most outstanding engineers.


The Black Male Archives Team


  1. Norbert Rillieux and the Multiple Effect Evaporator
  2. Norbert Rillieux
  3. Norbert Rillieux and Sugar Processing


Preservation Media


Image in the public domain

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