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Before the Breathalyzer There Was the Drunkometer

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 After Prohibition was repealed in the 1930s, police had to deal with an upswing in drunk driving.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.

The Drunkometer was used until the Breathalyzer came on the market in the 1950s. Read about the first case in which a Drunkometer was used at Ozy.

(Image credit: Florida Memory)


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I remember a vending machine when I was in Canada, early 1970's, for a nephew's wedding. It was at the Toronto firefighter's Club where the reception was held. Put coin(s) in and blew into it through a straw. Not sure how accurate it was. Never saw another one.
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