As a freedman, Norbert Rillieux had no plans of living his hometown, New Orleans. He was born there as a slave, and after studying and living in France, returned to Louisiana to become the most famous engineer in the state. He was assigned the job of reorganizing a sugar refining plant, and while working on the job he was given a fine house and servants for his personal use. He was one of the most prominent men in the state, but could not partake in events until he was asked because of race.
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. He was the oldest of seven children. Because of his creole descent, he was able to have access to education and privileges not available to other free blacks or slaves. He was baptized Roman Catholic and received his early education at private Catholic schools in Louisiana before traveling to Paris, France. Later in the early 1820s, Rillieux attended a famous engineering school, the École Centrale. While at École Centrale, he studied physics, mechanics, and engineering.
Rillieux was an important man wherever sugar was manufactured. Until 1846 the transformation of sugar cane juice into sugar was accomplished by a primitive method called “Jamaican Train” a slow, costly process. Rillieux also turned his engineer skills to dealing with the yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans in the 1850s. But his plans were blocked. In 1881, at the age of 75, Rillieux made one last foray into sugar evaporation when he adapted his multiple effect evaporation systems to extract sugar from sugar beets. The process for which he filed patent was far more fuel-efficient than that currently in use in the beet sugar factories in France. He lost his rights to the patent because of errors made during processing.
When Rillieux left Louisiana in 1854 to return to France, he tried to get the Europeans interested in his sugar processing but found the people were not as interested in the idea of Americans. However, eventually, his techniques were adopted by Europe. Norbert Rillieux died on October 8, 1894, at the age of 88.