A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, Norbert Rillieux was born on March 17, 1806, the son of Vincent Rillieux, a wealthy engineer, and Constance Vivant, a slave on his plantation. Young Rillieux's higher education was obtained in Paris, France, where his extraordinary aptitude for engineering led to his appointment at the age of twenty-four to instructor of applied mechanics at L'Ecole Centrale. Rillieux moved to Paris permanently in 1854, securing a scholarship and working on the deciphering of hieroglyphics.
Rillieux's inventions were of great value to the sugar-refining industry. The method formerly used required gangs of slaves to ladle boiling sugarcane juice from one kettle to another—a primitive process known as “the Jamaica Train.” In 1845 Rillieux invented a vacuum evaporating pan (a series of condensing coils in vacuum chambers) that reduced the industry's dependence on gang labor and helped manufacture a superior product at a greatly reduced cost. The first Rillieux evaporator was installed at Myrtle Grove Plantation, Louisiana, in 1845. In the following years, factories in Louisiana, Cuba, and Mexico converted to the Rillieux system.
When his evaporator process was finally adopted in Europe, he returned to inventing with renewed interest—applying his process to the sugar beet. In so doing, he cut production and refining costs in half.
Rillieux died in Paris on October 8, 1894, leaving behind a system that is universally used throughout the sugar industry and in the manufacture of soap, gelatin, glue, and many other products.