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, we're happy. But someone had to
have figured out how to get it from sugar cane and beets and convert
it into those tiny little 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 to this day.
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 stories is that they come with a
surprise ending. You're familiar with sugar in its usual processed
form, but you've probably never heard the story of 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 the patented name of his
invention was 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.
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?
[to top of second column]
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
Like Thomas Jefferson, Norbert's father had a slave for a
mistress, and Norbert was the result of that affair. Unlike
Jefferson, though, Norbert's 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 as
a free person. Fortunately for Norbert, and for everyone else in the
world who consumes sugar, his father chose freedom over slavery for
Being a free person allowed him to go off to France to study
engineering, and his engineering background helped him become an
inventor -- the inventor of processed sugar that is used today in
refining plants everywhere.
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2008