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June 22, 2017

In the 1970s, according to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol was a factor in over 60% of American traffic fatalities. That's a startling statistic. While drunk driving remains a major problem today, that number has dropped precipitously in recent years to about 31% (even though, in general, traffic fatalities have gone up). This decrease probably can't be attributed to any one factor, but it's inarguable that the increased usage and continuous improvements made to the mid-century invention of the breathalyzer have acted as a major deterrent to alcohol-impaired driving.

But before there was the breathalyzer, there were a number of other inventions that tried to help authorities to determine if someone was too drunk to drive - including the "drunkometer," a mostly unknown breathalyzer precursor, whose inventor Dr. Rolla N. Harger was born 127 years ago this month.

Prior to the 20th century, drinking and driving was a relatively minor issue not because Americans drank less - in fact, they drank more - but because there were very few cars. The first drunk driving arrest, according to the History Channel, actually took place in London in 1897. But a decade later and across the ocean, Henry Ford rolled out his famous Model-T and made automobiles affordable for the middle-class American. Soon, drunk driving became more prevalent. In 1910, New York became the first state to institute a law against driving under the influence. It would take years for many states to follow suit, partially because in 1919 the 19th amendment passed. This, of course, made the "manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors... prohibited." In essence, this also made drunk driving a federal crime.

The first conclusive study to determine someone's intoxication beyond simple visual cues (like, as the study states, "flushed face, red nose, muscular incoordination, confused or thick speech...") happened during prohibition. Right at the top, the study explains that this it was important research because of the "tremendous increase in automotive traffic... and greatly increased possibilities of serious accidents." As Matt Novak for Gizmodo's Paleofuture notes, scientists by this time already knew that testing blood could give an accurate representation of how drunk someone was. However, drawing blood was not practical when pulling someone over on suspicion of drunk driving. Lead by Dr. Emil Bogen, the study concluded that breath also worked as an indicator by measuring the alcohol's reaction with sulphuric acid and potassium dichromate.

Shortly after, Chicago chemist W.D. McNally created a device using Dr. Bogen's principles that he advertised in Popular Science in 1927. Despite saying that a "drinking man doesn't stand a chance these days" against his so-called "breath analyzer," it's unclear if the contraption was ever actually put to practical use in determining if someone was too intoxicated to drive or for "doubtful wives...(to test) their errant husbands."

In 1933, the 21st amendment repealed the 19th and ended the "noble experiment." The instances of drunk driving immediately rose. The Chicago Tribune reported that drunk driving rose by an astonishing 300% in just the first six months after the ratification of the 21st amendment. The Los Angeles Times also noted the "alarming rate of increase of traffic casualties directly traceable [to] the effects of hard liquor."

Indiana University chemistry professor Dr. Rolla Harger first devised his own method of measuring alcohol content from a breath test in 1931. It took him five years to patent the method and apparatus, which he explains in the documents is a much more practical way of determining someone's intoxication than taking a person's blood (plus it avoids legal complications that can result from the collecting of blood from a crash site). Relatively handheld, the "Drunkometer" was the first contraption of its kind when it was put to practical use by Indianapolis police on New Year's' Eve 1938. The process involved a subject breathing into a balloon and police chemically testing the air inside. Years later, Dr. Harger explained that its "admittedly crude" name started out as a joke, but it was "fairly expressive and it has stuck. It even appears in a recent medical dictionary." By 1940, several other police departments had acquired their own Drunkometers to test potentially inebriated drivers.

Soon, with demand high, other devices hit the market like the "Alcometer" developed by two guys from Yale. The LA Police Department got their own device with a catchy name, the "Intoximeter." Still, the Drunkometer was the industry standard for over a decade, but with competition came attempts to discredit Dr. Harger's methods. A doctor claimed that simply drinking water would get rid of all but "the most minute traces of alcohol." The Journal of American Medical Association claimed that a lack of oxygen - either through drowning or "violent exercise" - provided false positives. Another medical professional said that even the consumption of citrus rinds could act like alcohol during breath tests. In a 1950 paper, Dr. Harger provided that none of those claims were true - including with the morbid idea to drown 50 rabbits to prove that a lack of oxygen did not give a false positive.

Nonetheless, another Indiana resident named Robert F. Borkenstein invented what would become the industry standard in 1953. Borkenstein, a police photographer, apparently built the smaller and easier-to-use "breathalyzer" in his basement in a matter of days.

Over six decades later, Borkenstein's contraption is still used and no bunnies had to be drowned to prove it works.

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