Happy Birthday, Breathalyzer

90 years ago, development started on testing breath for alcohol content

Published: October 7, 2017, 5:00 PM
Updated: November 21, 2021, 3:07 PM

1967 Police officers administer Breathalyser

The motoring world is celebrating a very special anniversary this year — it has been 90 years since the invention of a breath analyzer for alcohol content, and 50 years since police conducted the first roadside analysis.

In 1927, on two continents, inventors were coming up with a way to analyze a person’s breath for alcohol traces. In England, people were asked to inflate a soccer ball bladder (it reportedly takes about two litres to inflate), and the collected breath sample would then be analyzed for alcohol content. Meanwhile at the same time in Chicago, chemist William McNally, created a device consisting of a vial of a potassium dichromate solution (orange in colour) that would change colour to green as the alcohol electrons in the person’s breath bonded with the chromium element in the solution.

As Prohibition ended in the US in 1933, there was a noticeable spike in the number of drunk driving incidents. Luckily, around this time, Rolla Neil Harger was developing his Drunkometer (patented in 1937), which depended on McNally’s chemical solution, but held a consistent amount of exhaled breath in a balloon located in the device.

Up to that time, police had been “judging” states of drunkenness through a series of roadside tests (such as standing still with eyes closed, reciting tongue twisters, and walking a straight line by pacing heel-to-toe, among others). Some of these tests are still used today as pre-qualifiers for administering a roadside breath test.

In 1954, the Breathalyzer was created by Indiana police captain Robert Frank Borkenstein, who had worked with Harger on his Drunkometer. Borkenstein’s device added photometry to the testing phase and provided immediate feedback on the level of intoxication (prior to this point, people were still being judged on being between mildly and extremely intoxicated), and helped set the acknowledged standard for impairment at 80mg of alcohol per 100mL of blood (0.35mg of alcohol per litre of breath), based on Borkenstein’s analysis of drunk driving data from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the discovery that driving deteriorated wildly once the 0.08 level was reached.

In 1967 in Britain, engineer Bill Dulcie and scientist/inventor Tom Parry Jones (who also happened to study for his Doctorate at University of Alberta) created the first electronic, hand-held breathalyzer, with police recording the first roadside breath test in Shropshire Oct. 8, 1967. Police still had to confirm the results with a blood or urine test back at the station — a practice that required medical practitioner presence, and which held well into the 1990s, when the development of an infra-red test proved comparable to blood testing.

Today, breath analyzers comparable to, but not as sophisticated as, those used in roadside tests are commonly available at drug stores, and many can be found in bars as a service to prove to patrons that they may be too intoxicated to safely operate a motor vehicle.