It’s hard to believe, but the beginning of the breathalyzer device actually goes back as far as 1874. That’s when research began on how possible it would be to use a person’s breath to test whether or not they’ve consumed alcohol.
It wasn’t until vehicles began to be manufactured on a large-scale in 1902 that the idea of measuring a person’s intoxication level became important, because that’s when people began to drive drunk. New York was the first location where drunk driving laws were put into place in 1910, and as people began to drive more, driving under the influence (DUI) laws began to pop up around the world.
Back then, police determined whether or not someone was under influence of alcohol by observing the driver for signs of intoxication. They’d look for bloodshot eyes, the smell of alcohol, and test whether or not a driver could walk a straight line or touch his or her nose. These types of exercises are still used by police and are now known as field sobriety tests, but at that time, it was all law enforcement had to go on in order to charge drunk drivers.
At this point in history, both drunk driving and field sobriety tests were new to everyone, but that was all about to change again. In 1927, Emil Bogen did research involving air in a football that he tested for traces of alcohol. His research laid the ground work for the comparison of someone’s breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) to their blood alcohol concentration (BAC), and it was in no small part that this information helped Indiana University professor Rolla Harger invent the drunk-o-meter in 1938.
The drunk-o-meter measured alcohol levels through a stable breath-testing instrument, and it arrived on the scene right when the U.S. was in the midst of prohibition. To use the device, a person had to blow into a balloon, and the air was then released into a chemical solution. If there was alcohol on the breath the solution would change color, and he used a mathematical equation to estimate the amount of alcohol someone had in his or her body.
It wasn’t until 1954 that Robert Borkenstein took Harger’s invention and improved upon it, creating a portable tool he called the breathalyzer. He also invented a coin operated breathalyzer that would display messages like ‘Be a safe driver’ or ‘Be a good walker’ to the person who blew into it.
From these humble beginnings, the breathaylzer device has advanced over the years, and now standard breathalyzers used by law enforcement and ignition interlock devices required by drunk driving offenders utilize the latest in fuel cell technology to measure a driver’s BAC.
Technology may have improved the breathalyzer, but the reason it was invented in the first place is still an issue – the fight against drunk driving has been going on for over a century, and until the time when all drunk drivers are off the roads, tools like the breathalyzer will help enforce DUI laws all around the world.
Photo credit drunkometer and breathalyzer – Drinkdriving.org