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History of the Breathalyzer, Invented by Robert F. Borkenstein

Nearly everyone has heard of breathalyzers, those devices used by law enforcement officers who pull you over on suspicion of drunk driving. Because this type of device has become the most popular way to test for blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the word “Breathalyzer” has made its way into modern English usage. The Breathalyzer is, however, the name for just one type of breath test device. Other types exist with different names, such as Intoxilyzer and Alcosensor, and the device itself has evolved over time since its creation in the 1950s by a police captain in Indiana.

What exactly does a Breathalyzer do? It measures the alcohol concentration in your breath, which is related to the alcohol concentration in your blood. Once alcohol is consumed, it eventually makes it into your bloodstream after being absorbed into the body through the mouth, stomach, and intestines. The alcohol makes it there as alcohol; it is not a digestible substance that will turn into something else. As part of the solution in which it is carried, however, it can evaporate which is what happens when blood with alcohol arrives at the lungs through normal circulation. There it will cross the lung sacs and be evaporated through the breath along with other substances which are exhaled through this organ. So when you breathe out, a breath testing device can detect and measure the amount of alcohol in your blood based on the amount of alcohol in your breath. These two have been determined to have a stable ratio of 2,100 breath alcohol to 1 blood alcohol.

This type of device makes the job of law enforcement much easier as the Breathalyzer test can be conducted on the spot. This quick test precludes the impracticality of having to send the suspect to a lab for a blood draw. Urine testing has also been found to be impractical for the purposes of DUI testing.

The Inventor of the Breathalyzer

The first Breathalyzer was invented by Robert F. Borkenstein, who became a celebrity in the forensic science world for his invention. He developed his invention in the Indiana State Police (ISP) Criminological Laboratory, one of the first forensic science laboratories in the U.S. Mr. Borkenstein had no intention of going into formal police work and did not have the height requirements needed at the time to become a policeman at the ISP. Those requirements were later waived as he advanced from a corporal up to a captain who was in charge of the lab’s services.

The Breathalyzer, as developed by Borkenstein, was not the first instrument of its kind created. An earlier model, called the Drunkometer was developed by Rolla N. Harger, a Professor at the Medical School of Indiana University in 1938. Later models followed, called the Intoximeter and the Alcometer. These early models were complicated and not very reliable. Professor Harger brought his early device to the ISP Lab where Borkenstein studied it and eventually came up with his second-generation machine, the Breathalyzer. Drawing on the basic principles of photography, which was his initial primary study and interest, Borkenstein created a simple, stable device that changed forever the problem of drunk driving. The Breathalyzer gave law enforcement a tool that could be used to quickly and efficiently measure blood alcohol in potentially dangerous drivers. Because of its better accuracy than previous attempts, its results could be used in courts of law as evidence.  Mr. Borkenstein described his Breathalyzer as being simple, consisting of “two photo cells, two filters, a device for collecting a breath sample, about six wires.” He further described it as being innately stable and requiring much less skill on the part of the operator than previous models. He built a working model of the device during a two-week vacation in the basement of his home in Indiana in 1954. It was demonstrated to the public later that year at a National Safety Congress in Chicago, where it was praised for its “uniform results.” It was then put into commercial production by a company Borkenstein had worked with in the past in his home state.

Evolution of the Breathalyzer

The Breathalyzer, as created by Borkenstein, continued to be updated with later models, including Models 900, 900A, 900B, and the Model 2000 described as microprocessor-controlled and using infrared absorption to measure alcohol. The Model 2000 was never marketed but made it possible for Borkenstein to help make a prototype for a similar machine which became the precursor to the breath testing devices called the BAC Verifier and later the BAC Datamaster.

All in all, between 1955 and 1999, more than 30,000 of Borkenstein’s various Breathalyzer models were produced and sold. They were used in almost every U. S. state as well as all provinces of Canada and in Australia where it became the standard breath-testing instrument for years. In Canada, when legislation was enacted regarding DUI law, it was called the “Breathalyzer law.”

The Breathalyzer impacted more than just law enforcement but was used as well in research studies into the effects of alcohol on driving in both the U. S. and Canada. It undoubtedly played an important role in the DUI legislation which prescribed specific blood alcohol concentration limits for drivers in all states as well as in Canada. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put the Breathalyzer on its 1974 Approved Products Lists as one of the first of its kind.

The “Breathalyzer” Today

Since Borkenstein’s original Breathalyzer, modern technology has advanced this machine. Today there are personal as well as professional breathalyzers and various types of devices based on different technologies. One of these is the electrochemical fuel cell Breathalyzer. The Alcosensor III and IV are fuel-cell devices which use an electrode system. Through a chemical reaction which occurs on the electrode system surface, an electrical current is created. This electrical current is produced by the alcohol on a person’s breath which will result in a digital readout or some other indicator.

These types of devices are small and handheld, thus useful to law enforcement. They are known for their accuracy but are expensive to manufacture.

Another type of modern Breathalyzer is the infrared optical sensor device, the latest version in what Borkenstein started with his Model 2000 Breathalyzer. An Intoxilyzer is an example of this type of device. The technology it uses is called infrared spectroscopy, which pinpoints molecules according to the way they absorb light. When ethanol in the breath absorbs the light, an electrical impulse is created which measures this which is then processed by a microprocessor into a BAC level. These types of devices are generally too large to be used as handheld devices.

Dual sensor breathalyzers are another type of device which use both infrared and electrochemical sensors combined into one device to give a very accurate measure of blood alcohol concentration.

Personal Breathalyzers

Finally, semiconductor breathalyzers are now available for private use by individuals. These small, handheld devices can be found online and in convenience stores; they are inexpensive because they are cheap to make. They also produce an electrical current when alcohol comes into contact with the surface of the semiconductor. These portable devices are not, however, as reliable as the more sophisticated types mentioned above used by law enforcement. That is because they vary in quality and can be affected by the atmosphere in which they are used. Their use is also dependent on correct operation.

Substances in the air around personal breathalyzers, such as cigarette smoke, carbon monoxide, and other fumes and gases can influence their readings as well as fluctuations in the humidity and temperature of the air. Changes in the patterns of the user’s breath flow can also influence readings as well as residual mouth alcohol. Artificially high as well as artificially low readings may result when used by consumers who do not fully understand how these factors can impinge on results. A further caution lies in the fact that the test results of a device used by law enforcement are the defining results which will be used in court as evidence for a DUI conviction. If used correctly, personal breathalyzers may be beneficial to responsible drivers concerning their driving ability but they should not be totally relied up to prevent a drunk driving conviction.

The Use of Breathalyzers

The Breathalyzer device has come a long way from its inception in the early 1950s. Accepted as a standard basis for most DUI convictions, it has led to changing laws concerning drunk driving restrictions throughout the U.S. In connection with DUI convictions, it has led to the ignition interlock device, a type of Breathalyzer wired into a convicted driver’s vehicle’s ignition which prevents it from starting if the user fails the breath test. The installation of this device is becoming increasingly popular as a court-ordered action for mostly repeat offenders in many states.

Beyond this, however, the Breathalyzer can now be used by more than just law enforcement as it finds its way into such areas as the workplace, in research studies, medical clinics, alcohol treatment programs, probation programs, halfway houses, and more. As technology advances, the Breathalyzer will likely become even more refined and widely applied, although its continued use now is assured.

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