Breathalyzers are in use since the 1950s, however, the interesting history of alcohol tests dates back much longer – drunk driving seemed to be a problem since the invention of the automobile
During the 1920s, authorities started to think about possibilities to control whether a car driver was impaired by alcohol. Testing the alcohol concentration in someone’s blood was both expensive and time-consuming, while urine tests seemed to reflect someone’s actual BAC fairly incorrect.
In 1927 Dr. Emil Bogen from Los Angeles conducted tests comparing the relation between blood and breath alcohol. His proto-breathalyzer consisted of a football filled with different yellow chemicals that would turn blue or green. He would then compare the exact color shades to glasses that contained the same chemicals mixed with varying amounts of alcohol1. His method was effective and precise, but not suitable for the application in actual traffic situations.
After the end of prohibition in 1933, the number of deaths and injuries related to drunk driving rised significantly. At this time, Dr. Rolla Neil Harger was working on his “drunkometer”, which was first applied in 1938 by the Indiana State Police. The idea behind the device was very similar to that of Dr. Bogen and turned out to be quite reliable2
In 1939, the National Safety Council and the American Medical Association introduced guidelines referring to drunk drivers that still had relevance more than 20 years later. During this time, only people with more than 0.15% were considered impaired by alcohol (today, the limit lies at only 0.08%).
After more and more people started to criticize the drunkometer, doubting its validity in court, Dr. Harger debunked various myths in 1950. One letter in a newspaper complained that the lack of oxygen would lead to a false positive, to which Harger reacted by drowning 50 rabbits and taking blood tests (in the end proving his point).
An invention makes history
Four years later, Robert F. Borkenstein invented the modern, portable breathalyzer. During his work as a police lab photographer he came up with the ingenious idea of creating an alcohol tester based on photographic cells3.
Finally police officers had a reliable device much more compact than the drunkometer!
Before the widespread use of the breathalyzer, the common practice was to check whether a driver appeared drunk and take him to the police station. If he then fell asleep, he was “proven” to be drunk.
A portable opportunity to determine someone’s alcohol level came in handy for both the police and drivers, which resulted in the widespread application of the breathalyzer within a short period of time, resulting in much more technical advances that lead to the devices we use nowadays.
Today, breathalyzers use a lot of different technologies, such as semiconductor sensors or the very accurate fuel cell sensors. Even small tubes containing chemicals that discolor to indicate the operator’s breath alcohol are still in use!
 Gizmodo Paleofuture: “Drunk Driving and The Pre-History of Breathalyzers“, by Matt Novak
 Science Museum: “Brought to Life – The History of Medicine: Breathalyzer“
 The New York Times: “Robert F. Borkenstein, 89, Inventor of the Breathalyzer“, by Douglas Martin