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THE REAL DIRT ON: Norbert Rillieux: Engineer, Inventor, and Father of Sugar Processing

Los Alamitos sugar beet factory, ca. 1910. Photo credit: University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society.

By Susan Krzywicki.

Sugar production in California has a long and, excuse the pun, lumpy history. But understanding the history of sugar production means knowing Norbert Rillieux, whose inventions and mechanical improvements to how sugar is processed led to some fairly dramatic changes. And he did this coming from a background that was fraught with issues that haunt us today such as racial divisions and workplace safety.

Norbert Rillieux, while living in Paris.

Norbert Rillieux was born into a prominent Creole family in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the son of a white plantation owner and his placée—a product of the plaçage extralegal system by which white men entered relationships with non-white women.

In the 1800s, the Sugar Train, or Jamaica Train, method of sugar refinement involved pouring hot sugarcane juice into successively smaller pots as the liquid thickened. Due to family interests and his European background in engineering, Norbert became interested in creating more effective and efficient methods and machines that would alleviate the hot, dangerous work that slaves did when refining sugar.

Cooking With Steam

Norbert’s multiple-effect evaporator worked like a convection oven: when lower trays are heated, heat is transferred via steam to upper trays. This allows for greater control over the heat, resulting in less waste from sugar being burned and discolored. And, since hot trays do not need to be handled, injuries are prevented.

Norbert moved to France before the outbreak of the American Civil War and, at the age of seventy-five, he adapted his methods to work for sugar beet processing, which had not been a valuable crop to that point.

California's Beet Sugar Industry

The California Beet Sugar Company was organized with a capacity of fifty tons of beets per day, and, in a plant that cost $125,000, the first California-based sugar was manufactured on November 17, 1870. In 1888, this was one of two beet sugar companies in California, and all beet sugar companies in other states had failed until that point (History of the Beet Sugar Industry in California).

More recently, according to the University of California's Agronomy Research and Information Center, “…the last sugar beet factory in northern California closed in 2008, ending more than 140 years of beet production in the region and leaving only one operating in the state (in the Imperial Valley)." That factory is in Brawley and operates under the Spreckels Sugar Company name. (Yes, that Spreckels.) Drive by some time: it's about twelve miles north of Interstate 8 on Route 86.

The Not-So-Sweet Future of Sugar

Recently, Cristin E. Kearns, DDS, MBA, discovered industry documents showing that “the Sugar Association proved to itself that calories from sugar had different metabolic effects than calories from starch in 1969...[and] this is in stark contrast to its public position, then and now, that all calories are created equal.” During this forty-year long suppression of scientific information, sugar consumption in the US increased 30% by the early 2000s, but is on the decline.

Now, sugar beets are still grown in the San Joaquin Valley—but for the modern use of bioenergy experimentation (California Farmers Turn Sugar Beets Into Energy). The plants could produce about fifteen million gallons of ethanol annually if water resources remain steady.

Rillieux's Death and Legacy

Rillieux died in 1894 and was buried in the famed Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise. He seems to have been wealthy, but his career was not without its roadblocks, including the denial of a patent because he was assumed to be a slave, and rejection from owners’ homes on plantations. Despite these hindrances, Mr. Rillieux used his talents to encourage an industry that has had a place in California for the past 150 years.

Susan Krzywicki is a native plant landscape designer in San Diego. She has been the first Horticulture Program Director for the California Native Plant Society, as well as chair of the San Diego Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Gardens Committee and is on the board of San Diego Canyonlands.

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