Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African Americans in Science and Technology

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Norbert Rillieux’s Steam Sugar Apparatus, c. 1843.

Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Norbert Rillieux was born into privilege in New Orleans, the son of a wealthy, landowning Creole mother and a white engineer father. Rillieux and his brother Edmond were educated in France, and by 1830 he was teaching applied mechanics at the École Centrale in Paris. In 1833 he returned to Louisiana, an important sugarcane producer due to its subtropical, Caribbean climate. At the time traditional methods of sugarcane distillation, known as the “Jamaica Train,” were dangerous and grossly inefficient; while tinkering in France, however, Rillieux had conceived a steam-driven process that could potentially increase yields and worker safety significantly. After various commissions from wealthy refiners fell through, in 1843 Rillieux finally patented his distilling device, simply called “Improvement in Sugar Works.” That same year Rillieux built distilleries for several prominent Louisiana planters, among them future Vice President of the Confederacy Judah P. Benjamin, to considerable financial success.

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