Police History: How cops conducted alcohol testing with the 'drunkometer'

The drunkometer was one of the earliest tools that allowed police officers to conduct roadside breath tests on suspected intoxicated drivers


This article is reprinted from the National Law Enforcement Museum’s blog. The museum is a project of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The National Law Enforcement Museum recently acquired a drunkometer, one of the earliest tools that allowed police officers to conduct roadside breath tests on suspected intoxicated drivers.

As more and more Americans began driving in the first half of the twentieth century, drunk-driving accidents increased significantly. Blood and urine samples could be taken to prove blood alcohol levels in impaired drivers after an arrest, but police officers needed a portable way to test drivers in the field and stop drunk-driving accidents before they happened.

The drunkometer continued to be used into the 1950s, when it began to be replaced by the quicker and more accurate breathalyzer. (Photo/NLEM)
The drunkometer continued to be used into the 1950s, when it began to be replaced by the quicker and more accurate breathalyzer. (Photo/NLEM)

Rolla Neil Harger, a biochemist from the Indiana University School of Medicine, invented the drunkometer in the 1930s. This relatively portable kit was essentially a small chemistry set. The police officer would have a driver breathe into a balloon; the breath from the balloon was mixed with chemicals from the kit, causing them to change color. The darker the color the mixture turned, the higher the amount of alcohol in the breath. A simple equation allowed police officers to determine the estimated blood alcohol levels and make an arrest.

The drunkometer continued to be used into the 1950s, when it began to be replaced by the quicker and more accurate breathalyzer, invented by American police officer and scientist Robert Frank Borkenstein. The Woodbridge (NJ) Police Department used this drunkometer through the early 1970s.

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