Actually, that was a
question, so let me ask you another one: Have you ever wondered how
certain products come about?
Take processed sugar, for example. How do they "make" sugar?
Sugar is one of those things that we take for granted -- as long
as we can buy it in the grocery store, then we're happy. But someone
had to have figured out how to get it from sugar cane and beets and
produce it into those tiny granules, right?
In 1864, a French American from New Orleans named Norbert
Rillieux (that's pronounced "Rillieux") created a method of
processing sugar that is still used all over the world. It was his
father's decision many years earlier that paved the way for Norbert
to have a successful career as an inventor, though. Many people of
his generation were not so fortunate.
The usual premise of these Invention Mysteries stories is that we
reveal the "little-known stories behind well-known inventions," and
they usually come with a surprise ending.
You're familiar with sugar in its usual processed form, but
you've probably never heard the story about its inventor.
Norbert Rillieux's method of refining sugar reduced the time,
cost and risk that it took to refine sugar. I'll spare you the
technical details, other than to say that his invention was called
the multiple-effect pan evaporator.
Growing up on a plantation, Norbert was able to see how
inefficient the sugar-making process was and how dangerous it was
for the slaves who did the work. His machine made it safer for the
workers, and it allowed them to produce better-tasting sugar faster
than sugar had ever been ever produced before.
[to top of second column
in this article]
What, then, was the decision that his father had made many years
earlier that paved the way for Norbert to have a successful career
as an inventor?
It wasn't that his father decided not to send Norbert off to
fight in the Civil War, because Norbert was in France studying
engineering during the first three years of the war.
Norbert's father lived during the same era as President Thomas
Jefferson, but it's unlikely that the two ever met. Norbert's father
was not involved in politics, yet he had something in common with
President Jefferson. It wasn't this common element that changed the
course of the history of sugar; it was the decision that Norbert's
Norbert's father, like Thomas Jefferson, had a slave mistress,
and Norbert was the result of that affair. Unlike Jefferson, though,
when Norbert was born, his father chose to make him a free person.
At the time, it was customary for the father of a biracial child
in the South to choose whether the child would live as a slave or
live as a free person. Fortunately for Norbert, and for the rest of
the world, his father chose freedom over slavery for his son.
Being a free person allowed him to study engineering, and this
helped him become an inventor -- the inventor of processed sugar
that is used today in refining plants everywhere.
Paul Niemann is the author of Invention Mysteries. He can be
reached at email@example.com.
© Paul Niemann 2005
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