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Breathalyzers: Then and Now

The history of breathalyzers traced from 1931 to 2020.

This article is part of a 4-part series on breathalyzers. For the latest article, read “BAC or Plain BAD? Faulty Breathalyzers and You” on Medium. Find the original Times article here: “These Machines Can Put You in Jail. Don’t Trust Them.”


THEN: Creating the Breathalyzer as we know it

Way back in 1931, a biochemist at Indiana University first announced a method for measuring alcohol through breath testing. In the next 7 years, this man, Dr. Rolla N. Harger, would develop this technique into a working device, jokingly nicknamed the “Drunkometer.”

Vetted by the Indiana State Police in 1938, the popularity of Harger’s device among various police departments across the country caused others to create similar models with similarly catchy names, from the Alcometer to the Intoximeter.

But despite the novelty of these gadgets, law enforcement still remained hesitant to incorporate these devices within a stronger judicial framework for intoxicated driving. After the failed Prohibition experiment in the 1920s, it seemed the entire country was against setting limits on the consumption of alcohol.

Seeing the failures of constitutional alcohol prohibition, the American justice system — following guidelines from the National Safety Council and the American Medical Association — was lenient in its definition of impaired driving.

While Norway’s BAC limit was 0.05% by 1936, this same percentage was deemed acceptable for driving in the U.S.

As a matter of fact, American defendants with BAC levels up to 0.15% were still not considered to be “under the influence.” It was only reaching 0.15% and above that American courts would prosecute for drunk driving.

Then, in 1954, Robert F. Borkenstein invented the Breathalyzer.

American roads would not be the same.

Borkenstein’s Breathalyzer paved the way for several duplicates in the fastly growing alcohol test industry. More advanced than earlier models, the Breathalyzer was both dependable and attractively portable.

Once released, it was easy to reproduce the original Breathalyzer. According to Borkenstein himself, the Breathalyzer was “so amazingly simple — two photocells, two filters, a device for collecting a breath sample, about six wires.”

Alongside the Breathalyzer’s uncomplicated design, there was a growing demand for alcohol test devices among law enforcement.

“Push-button justice” as its opponents coined it, was beginning to call for scientific developments to be more fully integrated within the field of criminal justice.

These technological advancements — which included breathalyzers, speed radars, and improved photographic technology — would revolutionize law enforcement and help create a more just society.

NOW: Reframing breathalyzers in a modern perspective

Today, we have grown accustomed to these breathalyzers adapted from Borkenstein’s original model. Small enough to fit in one’s purse or pocket, modern-day breathalyzers can be portable and convenient for personal use.

But just as we’ve grown to adopt breathalyzers in our lives, newer devices need to be created to solve contemporary problems.

For instance, as of 2020, marijuana is legal for adults in 11 states. As a result, law enforcement now has to learn how to enforce “high” driving, which cannot be tested for impairment through traditional alcohol breath-testing devices.

Additionally, interlock devices have grown in popularity, begging the question of whether newer car models should come with built-in breath-based systems for the detection of user impairment.

And, if you’ve been reading the latest Otorize’s articles, there is a growing market for digital breathalyzers that counteract the faulty nature of improperly calibrated breathalyzers used by state police departments.

So what’s the future of breathalyzers?

Will breathalyzers come in marijuana models as well?

Will they be built-in features in new cars?

Or will they be entirely digital?

By taking on an active consumer role in the industry, the future of the modern-day breathalyzer is up to you.


Comment below with your thoughts, suggestions, and ideas for the innovative future of breathalyzers — you may be featured on Otorize’s social media channels!


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