Before the Breathalyzer There Was the Drunkometer

Before the Breathalyzer There Was the Drunkometer

You sir, are drunk.

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Why you should care

Because cops love a scientific way to prove you’ve been drinking.

Ray Gordon and his wife had just left a party in Indianapolis, where they, like many other couples, had enjoyed a few drinks. It was August 1937 — just three years after Prohibition had ended — and police were seeing a rise in drinking and driving, a practice they wanted to bring to a stop.

In Chicago, in 1934 alone, the year after alcohol hit glasses legally again, there were four times as many injuries and deaths due to drunken driving than in 1933. By 1936, the National Safety Council had launched an advertising campaign with a catchphrase that could still stand today: “If you drink, don’t drive.” But that didn’t stop Ray Gordon from speeding off into the night … until he crashed, injuring himself and the missus and involving two other cars. The police showed up to investigate — equipped with a new, scientific way to determine whether Gordon had been drinking.

Instead of banning alcohol, which didn’t work, we look to a device that quantifies just how much drinking is OK.

Bruce Bustard, National Archives curator

Proving whether a driver was drunk had been problematic for the authorities since the days of the Ford Model T. In 1905, the Los Angeles Times covered the trial of 21-year-old Barbee Hook, who struck and killed a pedestrian and was accused of felony manslaughter. Conflicting testimonies of what transpired that night muddled the trial: Hook and his friends had been drinking whiskey, but a fellow passenger said that Hook had been driving carefully. Hook claimed there was no way he could have avoided the pedestrian, and a jury of his peers, deciding reasonable doubt was raised by the discrepancies between Hook’s version of events and the prosecution’s, acquitted him. This wasn’t uncommon: Police would test drivers in various ways to try to prove they were drunk, like making them say “Methodist Episcopal” to catch an alcohol-induced lisp. Without scientific proof, says Barron Lerner, author of One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, it was hard to get a conviction: “The roadside testing of balance and cognition was felt to be too subjective.”

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The Drunkometer. Circa 1940.

Source Getty

Cue Indiana University biochemist and toxicologist Rolla N. Harger, who had been working since 1931 on a machine to put hard evidence behind a police officer’s claim. Harger finally got a patent for the Drunkometer in 1936. The upshot? A person would blow into a balloon, and the air would drop into a chemical solution, with the corresponding color change indicating blood alcohol content. “Instead of banning alcohol, which didn’t work, we look to a device that quantifies just how much drinking is OK,” says Bruce Bustard, who curated “Spirited Republic,” the National Archives exhibit on the history of the U.S. government’s relationship with alcohol.

Swedish scientist Erik Widmark had developed a blood alcohol level test with a finger-prick, but the technique was often labeled inaccurate, and blood samples were hard to obtain. Bustard says Americans dealt with “the fear that drinking imperils our society [by] relying on technology.” But since many police labs didn’t have graduate-level chemists on hand, “we felt that there was a need for a simpler method which could be handled by an intelligent police technician,” wrote Hager in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology.

Harger’s contraption was big — the size of a suitcase — but Indiana police had nine of them, and the Gordons got to be their first guinea pigs. When the results came back, both husband and wife were charged with driving while intoxicated. A week later, the results from Harger’s machine were introduced as evidence to the court, and Harger was asked to testify — the first time a breath-blown test had been accepted as evidence in court. The story was so big that it made international news.

The Gordons’ attorney tried to belittle the Drunkometer as little more than a “balloon test.” But Harger doubled down, telling the court that his machine had the American Medical Association’s seal of approval. The evidence was deemed adequate enough to fine the Gordons $5 each for drunkenness. But the judge didn’t think it was quite enough to charge them with driving under the influence of intoxicants.

Still, it was a sobering start, and police nationwide increasingly benefited from being empowered to prosecute drunken drivers, provided they had access to Harger’s bulky device. The Drunkometer remained in the limelight until the 1950s, when a colleague of Harger’s invented the Breathalyzer, a more compact and easier-to-use version of its pioneering predecessor — which gave drivers an even higher-tech reason not to have another drink.

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