Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894)

Norbert Rillieux (March 17, 1806 – October 8, 1894), an Louisiana French speaking Creole inventor and engineer, is most noted for his invention of 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 a cousin of the painter Edgar Degas.

Norbert Rillieux was born into a prominent Creole family in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the son of Vincent Rillieux, a white plantation owner, and his placée, Constance Vivant, a free person of color. Norbert was the eldest of seven children. His siblings were: Barthelemy, Edmond, Marie Eugenie, Louis, Marie Eloise, and Cecile Virginie. Norbert's aunt on his father's side, Marie Celeste Rillieux, was the grandmother of painter Edgar Degas. His aunt on his mother's side, Eulalie Vivant, was the mother of Bernard Soulie, one of the wealthiest gens de couleur libre in Louisiana.

As a Creole of color, Norbert Rillieux had access to education and privileges not available to lower-status free blacks or slaves. Baptized Roman Catholic, Rillieux received his early education at private Catholic schools in Louisiana before traveling to Paris, France, in the early 1820s to attend a famous engineering school, the École Centrale. While at École Centrale, Norbert studied physics, mechanics, and engineering. He became an expert in steam engines and published several papers about the use of steam to work devices. These early explorations became the foundation of the technology he would later implement in his evaporator. At 24 (1830), Rillieux became the youngest teacher at École Centrale, instructing in applied mechanics. He was also a competent blacksmith, an expert machinist, and fluent in French.

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