Development of the Scoville Organoleptic Test (1912)
Wilbur Scoville, working at the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company, developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test. This test involved diluting a pepper extract with sugar water and having a panel of tasters sample it.
The process was repeated until the heat was no longer detectable. The level of dilution (measured in Scoville Heat Units) was then assigned to the pepper, with higher numbers indicating hotter peppers.
The Scoville Scale
The results of the Scoville Organoleptic Test were compiled into the Scoville Heat Scale, which originally ranged from 0 (no heat) to several hundred thousand (extremely hot). The method was subjective, but provided a way to compare the heat levels of different peppers.
Modern Advances (High-Performance Liquid Chromatography - HPLC)
The subjectivity of the dilution method led to interest in standardized, repeatable measuring tools. Starting in the 1980s, SHU has been calculated using HPLC - and it's fairly common to see students practicing HPLC by measuring the SHU of hot peppers!
The Scoville Heat Scale is now widely recognized and used in the culinary world to communicate the heat level of different peppers and spicy products. It has become a standard reference for consumers, chefs, and food producers who want to gauge and communicate the spiciness of their products accurately.