Did you ever see someone in an old movie blow into a balloon to see how drunk they were? That was part of a device called the Harger Drunkometer. After Prohibition was repealed inthe 1930s, police had to deal with an upswing of drunk driving. It was hard to get a conviction without concrete evidence, though, so law enforcement turned to science for help.
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.