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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Slaveholder's decision changed the history of an everyday invention

By Paul Niemann

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[October 02, 2008]  Can we begin today's column with a question?

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, 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?

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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 father made.

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 his son.

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

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