With the creation of the multiple-effect evaporator under vacuum, Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), largely regarded
as one of the early chemical engineers, revolutionized sugar manufacturing.
Rillieux's greatest scientific breakthrough was his realization that using
latent heat repeatedly at low pressure would result in higher-quality sugar at
a lesser cost. Rillieux's idea, widely regarded as the best method for lowering
the temperature of all industrial evaporation and saving enormous amounts of
fuel, was one of the major early achievements in chemical engineering.
“Norbert Rillieux, quadroon libre,
natural son of Vincent Rillieux and Constance Vivant,” reads the birth
certificate on file at New Orleans City Hall. 17th of March, 1806. Pere Antoine
baptized me in St. Louis Cathedral.”
Vincent Rillieux was an inventor who
created a steam-powered cotton baling press. He appears to have had a long
connection with Constance Vivant, who was described as a "free lady of
color," and one of their sons, Norbert, became a chemical engineer. The
baptism at the cathedral of New Orleans and the use of the father's surname
imply that paternity was officially acknowledged.
Norbert's father sent him to France
for his education when he was a young boy since he showed an interest in
engineering. Rillieux was an applied mechanics instructor at the Ecole Centrale
in Paris by the age of 24. Rillieux produced a series of papers on steam
engines and steam power around the year 1830.
Rillieux began work on the multiple
effect evaporator while in France. “The significant scientific contribution
which Rillieux made was in his understanding of the steam economies which may
be obtained by repetitive utilization of the latent heat in the steam and
vapors,” wrote George Meade, a sugar expert, in 1946.
Rillieux's method, which set the
foundation for all modern industrial evaporation, involved harnessing the
energy of vapors rising from boiling sugar cane syrup and passing them through
many chambers, leaving sugar crystals in the end.
Rillieux's evaporator was a safer,
less expensive, and more efficient technique of evaporating sugar cane juice
than the Jamaica train, which was in use at the time. Teams of enslaved
Africans ladled boiling sugar juice from one open kettle to another in this
arrangement. Because the heat in the kettles couldn't be controlled and a lot
of sugar was lost in the process of transferring juice from kettle to kettle,
the sugar produced was of poor quality.
Rillieux returned to New Orleans in
the early 1830s, during a sugar boom, after several Louisiana sugar planters
recognized the significance of his discovery. Over the next decade, Rillieux
worked on his invention, and in 1843, he was commissioned to install an
evaporator on Judah Benjamin's Bellechasse Plantation. Rillieux's staunchest
advocate in Louisiana sugar circles was Benjamin, a Jewish lawyer who eventually
served as the Confederacy's secretary of war. In 1846, Benjamin claimed that
the sugar produced by the Rillieux device was superior to "our northern
refineries' best double-refined sugar."
According to a contemporary, the
success of his evaporator made Rillieux "the most sought after engineer in
Louisiana," and he amassed a great fortune. Despite the fact that his
invention enriched sugar growers, Rillieux was still classified as a
"person of color" under the law, who may visit sugar farms to install
his evaporator but not sleep in the plantation house. (Neither could a man of
Rillieux's achievements be expected to remain in slave quarters.) While
Rillieux was visiting as a "consultant," it appears that some
planters sleep with other enslaved servants.
With the implementation of further
limits on their capacity to move about the streets of New Orleans and other
severe legislation as the Civil War loomed, the status of free blacks
Rillieux relocated back to France at this
period. His decision could have been influenced by racial tensions. Rillieux
became enraged when one of his patent applications was first disallowed because
authorities incorrectly believed he was a slave and so not a United States
citizen. The sugar industry's diminishing profitability in Louisiana could also
have played a role. In any case, Rillieux developed a fondness for Egypt in
In 1880, a visiting Louisiana sugar
planter discovered Rillieux at the Bibliotheque Nationale deciphering hieroglyphics.
Rillieux died in 1894 and was buried in Pere Lachaise, a famous Paris cemetery.
Emily Cuckow, his wife, lived happily for another eighteen years.
"I have long believed that
Rillieux's discovery is the finest in American chemical engineering history,
and I am unaware of any other invention that has saved so much money in all
divisions of the industry.”
— Sugar Chemist, U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Charles A. Browne (1870-1947).
Effects of Sugar Production Evaporator
Sugar cane had been cultivated near
New Orleans as early as 1750, although with limited success. Indigo, a blue
dye, was Louisiana's cash crop for much of the eighteenth century, but disease
and insects prompted planters to hunt for alternatives. Sugar's popularity
resurfaced in the 1790s. Following that, production increased steadily, and by
1830, Louisiana was producing over 33,000 tons of sugar per year.
In most cases, sugar cane is
harvested in the fall. Sugar cane juice is made by milling the cane after it
has been cut. Animal power was initially utilized to grind the cane; however,
by the 1830s, steam power had begun to take its place. The cane juice was
boiled in four enormous open kettles placed in a kettle train in each case.
Each kettle was distinct in size, and they were arranged from largest to
smallest, with the largest holding up to 500 gallons. The grande was the first
and largest kettle, followed by the flambeau, the sirop, and lastly the
batterie, which was the smallest.
The juice was heated close to boiling
point in the first kettle, the grande, and teams of slaves ladled the resulting
concentrated sugar syrup to the next kettle as the water boiled off. From the
flambeau to the sirop kettles, the process was repeated. The syrup was put to
the batterie after it thickened and attained the desired quality and density.
Each step in the process, which was done again and over, necessitated
additional people. The contents of one kettle were refilled with juice from the
kettle that came before it in the train as soon as it was drained.
The sugarmaker kept an eye on the
boiling syrup in the batterie. He would make a "strike" when it
reached the required temperature and consistency. The sugar producer ladled the
syrup into vats to cool when the boiling mass began to create sugar crystals.
The syrup would crystallize if the strike happened at the appropriate time; if
it didn't, the syrup would cool into a lump of worthless molasses.
The Jamaica train was inefficient
because it required the constant attention of teams of slaves performing
tedious, backbreaking, and dangerous manual labor; it was wasteful because much
sugar was lost in the process, and it was primitive because each kettle
required its own source of heat, which was usually wood, and the heat could not
be controlled. Various attempts had been made to harness the energy of the
steam rising from the boiling juice to heat the liquid in the following step in
the refining process, with only partial success.
Norbert Rillieux's greatest
breakthrough was his realization that latent heat could be employed repeatedly
in sugar processing. The outcome was his Multiple Effect Evaporator under
Vacuum, which was dubbed "the finest engineering achievement in
nineteenth-century sugar technology" by one scholar, John Heitman, in The
Modernization of the Louisiana Sugar Industry, 1830-1910. Others have said that
Rillieux's design transformed the sugar industry in the same way that Eli
Whitney's cotton gin revolutionized cotton processing.
Rillieux took advantage of the latent
heat generated by evaporating sugar cane juice by using a succession of three
or four closed evaporating pans, with vapor piped out of each pan to heat the
juice in the next, and the vapors eventually traveling to a condenser. Pumps
reduced the pressure in the system at the same time, creating partial vacuums
and lowering the boiling point of the liquid. Rillieux's 1846 patent includes
the following description of the invention's design:
“A series of vacuum pans, or partial
vacuum pans have been arranged in such a way that the vapor from the
evaporation of the juice in the first is used to heat the juice in the second,
and the vapor from the second is used to heat the juice in the third, which is
connected to a condenser, with the degree of pressure in each successive one
being less... The number of sirup-pans may be increased or lowered at will, as
long as the last in the series is used with the condenser.”
Rillieux's invention made it possible
to produce higher-quality sugar with fewer labour and at a lower cost. Because
just the first chamber needed to be heated, one of the key economies was fuel
conservation. The latent heat released by steam from the previous chamber was
utilized in each subsequent chamber. Despite the fact that the Rillieux
evaporator was a huge advancement in sugar technology, some antebellum
Louisiana planters were hesitant to use it.
Slavery's inherent contradictions
were one of the reasons. Slaves were deemed to be incapable of handling complex
machinery by many planters.
Other landowners feared that teaching
slaves new skills might cause them to challenge their masters' authority,
leading to insurrection. Andrew Durnford, a free black slaveholder, refused to
have a Rillieux evaporator installed because he did not want to “give up management
of his people.”
Rillieux's evaporator was eventually
adopted by sugar manufacturers all over the world, including Cuba, Mexico,
France, Egypt, and the United States. Furthermore, the gadget was not confined
to sugar production, and it became known as the most effective technology for
lowering the temperature of all industrial evaporation and saving enormous
amounts of fuel.
Sugar, as well as condensed milk,
soap, glue, and a variety of other items are still made via multiple effect
evaporation under vacuum.
The Rillieux evaporator was one of
the first chemical engineering discoveries, and it still serves as the
foundation for all modern kinds of industrial evaporation. The fact that
Rillieux invented his gadget before the Civil War when the vast majority of
African Americans were enslaved, is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his
invention. He was successful because he grasped the fundamentals of
thermodynamics and latent heat and applied them to the sugar industry's
Americans pouring into the newly
purchased Louisiana Territory encountered a social caste virtually unknown on
the Eastern seaboard: gens de couleur libre, or free people of color. Norbert
Rillieux and the New Orleans "gens de couleur libre" In the early nineteenth
century, free blacks made almost 25% of New Orleans' population, significantly
more than in most other parts of the American South were practically all
blacks were slaves.
The French and Spanish ancestry of
Louisiana contributed to the large population of free blacks in New Orleans.
France and Spain both had moderate manumission regulations and encouraged
slaves to buy their freedom. However, the bulk of free blacks were the product
of white men and black women having sexual relations. “A good many locals live
almost publicly with colored concubines,” one Spanish priest complained, and
they regard the progeny of such liaisons “as their legitimate children.”
Finally, hundreds of light-skinned
freemen fleeing the internecine fighting in the fledgling black Republic of
Haiti expanded the ranks of the gens de couleur libre in the early years of
American administration of New Orleans.
Louisiana free blacks had a greater
social status and more rights than the English colonies' small free black
population in the eighteenth century. Although their situation would
deteriorate under American administration, free blacks continued to enjoy a
privileged position in the antebellum period.
The Louisiana Supreme Court declared
in 1856 that there is "all the difference between a free man of color and
a slave, that there is between a white man and a slave" under Louisiana
Relationships between white men and
African women were widespread in nineteenth-century New Orleans, as they were
during the years of French and Spanish control. “The quadroon girls of New
Orleans are brought up by their mothers to be what they have been, the
mistresses of white gentlemen,” wrote Harriet Martineau, a well-known English
novelist, social critic, and traveler.
Many of the sons, including Norbert
Rillieux, were taken to France, according to Martineau.
“The arrangement is never stopped,
but becomes, really, that of marriage, save that it is not legalized nor
solemnized,” said Frederick Law Olmsted, a famed landscape architect who
visited New Orleans in the 1850s. Victor Rillieux, who never married, and
Constance Vivant appear to have been in this situation.
But, according to Olmsted, “the class
composed of the illegitimate offspring of white men and colored women
(mulattoes or quadroons), who, from habits of early life, the advantages of
education, and the use of wealth, are too much superior to the negroes, in
general, to associate with them, and are not allowed to marry white people by
law, or popular prejudice.”
Norbert Rillieux lived in a world
where the big caste of "free people of color" held rights somewhere
between slaves and whites. In other terms, they were not slaves nor were they
Edgar Degas and
Edgar Degas, the renowned French
impressionist painter, visited New Orleans in 1872, when the city was still
recuperating from the Civil War's wounds, in the midst of Reconstruction, and
under Federal administration. Degas' production as a painter had slowed, yet
something about the war-torn and divided city inspired him and resulted in some
of his best works.
Degas' principal motivation for
traveling was to spend some time with his American family. Vincent Rillieux,
the painter's great grandfather, had erected a huge home on Royal Street.
Degas' maternal grandmother was his daughter Maria.
The affair of one of Vincent's sons,
also named Vincent, with Constance Vivant, was a closely guarded family secret.
Edmond, the superintendent of the New Orleans water works, and Norbert, the
chemist and engineer, were two of their sons — first cousins of Degas' mother.
On April 18, 2002, the American
Chemical Society named Norbert Rillieux's creation of the multiple effect
evaporator under vacuum as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony
held at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Norbert Rillieux
(1806-1894) revolutionized sugar production with the creation of the Multiple
Effect Evaporator under Vacuum, according to the plaque commemorating the
designation. Rillieux's greatest scientific breakthrough was his realization
that using latent heat repeatedly at low pressure would result in
higher-quality sugar at a lesser cost. Rillieux' idea, widely regarded as the
best method for lowering the temperature of all industrial evaporation and
saving enormous amounts of fuel, was one of the major early achievements in