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The year was 1912. Wilbur Scoville, a scientist who worked for the Parke Davis pharmaceutical company, was sitting around with a bunch of his buddies, drinking beer and generally shooting the breeze. They were eating potato chips, which had been invented in 1853, but weren't available in grocery stores until 1895. Around the time potato chips were invented, hot sauce also came into being. Of course, in addition to adding flavor, these sauces cured what ails you. The label on a sauce from the period reportedly stated, "It is expressly suitable for family dining, possessing a fine, rich body of exquisite flavor and has neither the fiery nor nauseous taste which characterizes most sauces." The copy went on to claim: "It relieves indigestion and cures dyspepsia. Physicians recommend it highly."
So anyway, Willy Scoville and his buds were knocking back a few, when one of the guys said something like, "Man, this is some hot sauce." To which another buddy replied, "You wimp, this sauce isn't hot. It's like ketchup only thinner. (Ketchup was invented in 1690, but they didn't get around to adding tomatoes to it until the mid 1700's. It's hard to imagine what ketchup would be like without tomatoes, but then a lot of things are hard to imagine about life in the 1700's.) The point is that Doc Scoville and his pals were not only familiar with hot sauce and potato chips, but with Ketchup as well.
Now Willy Scoville was a man of many talents, and was known throughout Parke Davis as a really smart guy. His major claim to fame up until that point was writing a book called The Art of Compounding which amazingly enough was used as a pharmacy reference book until the mid 1960's. Pretty impressive. But even with that and even though Doc Scoville slaved away every day at Parke Davis, he hadn't yet received a whole lot of attention for his efforts. Which is why he was drinking beer with his friends, trying desperately to boost his self esteem, to get a little bit drunk and to forget about the whole lack of recognition thing.
Willy Scoville's take on the hot sauce debate was somewhere between the two. He didn't consider himself a wimp when it came to hot stuff, but he also didn't think it tasted like ketchup. So of the five guys that were sitting around his card table drinking bottles of beer, three had already weighed in with different opinions of the heat of the sauce. By the way, we know the boys were drinking bottles of beer since canned beer wouldn't happen for another 10 years or so. They were also stacking their bottles and it is reported--not reliably though--that Wilbur Scoville invented the song 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall at or around this same time.
This was when Willy Scoville had a brain flash that would make him famous, but not rich. Sitting there, quaffing cold ones, eating spicy chips and sauce and hearing his buddies argue, he figured out a way to settle the argument once and for all, and also to get some recognition for himself, even though the company couldn't really use his idea for anything. Doc Scoville's idea was simple: dilute the spicy hot sauce and have all five guys taste it. When they couldn't taste the heat any more (the effects of the compound called capsaicin), he'd use a formula to figure out how much dilution there was, and that would describe the heat of the sauce. Since his method used an organ--the tongue--he called it an organoleptic test, and low and behold, Wilbur Scoville had created the Scoville Scale.
Like most scientists, it took Doc Scoville awhile to perfect his new idea. This was because he started out doing the dilution thing with beer, which made sense because that way Willy Scoville and his buds could rate hot sauces and drink beer at the same time. Unfortunately, by the time the sauce had become fully diluted, the boys had become fully polluted as well, and consensus could never be achieved. This led Doc Scoville to reluctantly substitute sugar water for beer as the dilution agent, which is the method in use today. Under Willy Scoville's new system, bell peppers, which are not hot at all, have a Scoville rating of 0, which makes perfect sense. Pure capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot, has a rating of 15,000,000 Scoville units, meaning that it nees to be diluted 15,000,000 parts to 1 in order to be indistinguisable. You can easily see why it's good that Wilbur decided to switch from beer to sugar water since had he stayed with beer, the men would've not only gotten drunk out of their minds but would've died from liver damage long before the pure capsaicin had been diluted. As it turned out, all that happened was that they all became diabetic from consuming all that sugar water.
But as usual, progress happens and takes its toll and things that were once fun became more accurate, but less fun. Now they use a machine to determine precisely how much capsaicin is in something, and then multiply it by some numbers to convert it back to the Scoville Scale. The only difference is that nobody gets to sit around drinking and tasting and reporting on what they tasted. What fun is that? Which is why we have the Peppers of Key West tasting bar. You can come in with your buddies, bring some beer, eat hot sauce and chips, drink your beer, and raise a toast to old Willy Scoville and his hot sauce loving buddies from long ago. Now what could be more fun than that?
Scoville Scale - What's the Scoop?