Three sharks have met and they‘re discussing their breakfast.
‘I have eaten a Chinese today‘, the first one says.
‘Was it good?‘, the other two ask.
‘Not really, just rice.‘
‘And I have eaten a French guy‘, remarks the second one.
‘No, only frogs and snails‘, it answers.
‘I have had a Russian‘, the last one boasts.
‘For real?! Breathe!‘

1874 ‘ this is not the place of this joke in ranking but the year in which an English doctor Francis E. Anstie discovered that, except for nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide, the air that we breath out also contains alcohol, if we have drunk it beforehand.

The first prototype of the breathalyser though was not discovered until 50 years later. During this time, the automobile industry was booming and there were more and more drivers, also the ones driving under the influence.

How many years passed from arresting the first drunk driver to the ban of driving a vehicle under the influence in Great Britain?

The 1920s was the time of development of first prototypes of breathalysers checking level of alcohol in a human organism and also accompanying changes in law. As late as in 1925, driving any mechanically propelled vehicle being drunk became an offence.

The law was drafted after 28 years after the first fatal motor car accident in London caused by drunk George Smith in 1897. The man paid only 25 shillings for crashing into a building. In the 20th century he could have:

  • paid as much as 50 pounds of fine,
  • been sent to prison for 4 months, or
  • lost his driving license for at least 12 months.

The first city to introduce the law was New York in 1910.

In the 19th century, it was not allowed in Great Britain to be drunk while in charge of carriages, horses, cattle and steam engines. The penalty for such offence was a fine of maximum 40 shillings or imprisonment, with optional hard labour not exceeding one month.

How were drunk drivers tested when there weren't any breathalysers?

There were no regulations concerning acceptable limit of alcohol in blood as police officers didn‘t have tools to verify it.

All they could do is use their best judgment.

They checked whether the breath of a suspect smells of alcohol, eyes are red and tongue twisted. Drivers were asked to walk in a straight line or touch their nose with eyes closed.

Nowadays, breathalysers with electrochemical sensor (like Alkohit X8) – the ones that are used by the police ‘ allow to perform a reliable test with 0.01‘ precision. In the 20th century, it was claimed that 2100 ml of alveoral gas contained the same alcohol dose as 1 ml of blood, but today handy breathalysers do all the computing for you and convert concentration of alcohol in exhaled air to blood alcohol content.

Advanced electrochemical fuel cell sensor breathalyzer
Electrochemical breathalyser AlcoScan AL-8000

Breathalyser examination is a small beer‘ that will also be detected! They may be used by everyone who wants to be sure that they are good to sit behind a wheel. The newest models may be plugged into a smartphone and a dedicated app displays result of the test and tells whether you are ok or should switch to a passenger‘s seat.

But how were breathalysers created?

Who invented the breathalyser?

Year 1927, three cities, two continents and one goal – creating a device for precise measurement of alcohol in a human organism.

One of the first persons, who tried to measure level of alcohol in exhaled air, was doctor Emil Bogen, working in Los Angeles. He took three samples of drunk individuals – urine, blood and exhaled air. Subjects exhaled to a football bladder in which reagents changed colours like litmus papers. The results were compared with tubes of the same chemicals in which different amounts of alcohol had been added.

toxicologist from Chicago William Duncan McNally
Dr William Duncan McNally on the left.

Another person was a toxicologist from Chicago – William Duncan McNally, who created a breathalyser and offered his invention not only to the police forces but also‘ wives waiting for their husbands coming back from a boozy evening.

After the prohibition was repealed in the late 1933, one would imagine crowds of drunk men and this was the case indeed.

According to statistics, in the first half of 1934 in Chicago, the number of deaths in road accidents caused by drunk drivers rose fourfold in comparison with first half of 1933.

England was also taking part in creating the first breathalyser that could be used outside of a laboratory. In Malboroughpolice surgeon Gorsky conducted a test on a drunk driver who exhaled 2 litres of air to a football bladder. After examining the sample, he discovered it contained 1.5 ml of pure ethanol.

The specialist concluded that the subject was 50% drunk.

When the police used a breathalyser to test a driver for the first time?

Currently the highest number of drunk drivers is caught during weekends and around holidays, as some people start drinking during Christmas and finish after the New Year‘s Eve. As a matter of fact, on the 31st of December 1938, American police of the Indianapolis state used for the first time in history the breathalyser to examine a driver.

It cost lives of 50 laboratory rabbits and was created by professor Harger who called it ‘The Drunkometer‘Operators of this device needed to undergo 44 hours of training – whereas devices available today are super easy to use, like the broad-scale police breathalyser Alkohit X45.

How did the Drunkometer work? The tested person blew into a balloon inside the device. The air in the balloon was then released into a chemical solution. If there was alcohol in the breath sample, the chemical solution changed colour.

The more intense the change of colour, the more drunk the person.

Interestingly enough, nowadays not every breathalyser displays precise result of the test ‘ some use colours to indicate level of alcohol intoxication, like the police-grade AlcoBlow that requires no mouthpieces.

The Drunkometer was the size of a shoebox and today we would refer to it as a mobile laboratory. ‘The Intoximeter‘, invented by Glen Forester, used the same chemical solution but was a bit smaller.

Hager drowned 50 laboratory rabbits to prove that oxygen shortage doesn‘t influence result of a breathalyser test, what he was criticised for by his opponents. Fortunately, Forester didn‘t have to repeat this cruel experiment.

When was the first sensor breathalyser created?

The creator of the breathalyser with semiconductor lived to the beginning of the 21st century. It was Robert Frank Borkenstein, who collaborated with Hager, and had a major influence in the development of this device as he actually invented the first fully working breathalyser in the 1950s.

His model, unlike previous ones, did not have a balloon inside, but two photocells, two sensors, a sensor for examining air sample and six wires.

Thanks to its minimalistic construction, the Breathalyzer‘ was much easier to use and more intuitive than previous prototypes. Both Breathalyser‘ and Breathalyzer‘ are registered trademarks, though nowadays each device for checking alcohol blood level is referred to as a breathalyser, regardless its brand.

Borkenstein created also the coin-operated breathalyser which charged for testing alcohol level and gave useful advice. After dropping in a coin and blowing through a straw, a reading of 0.04 or less produced a message: ‘Be a safe driver‘. Between 0.05 and 0.09: ‘Be a good walker‘ and at 0.10 or higher, it sounded a small alarm and warned: ‘You‘re a passenger‘.

When the first maximum legal blood alcohol limit (0.08) was introduced in the UK in 1967 (The Road Safety Act) and the government certified breathalyser for testing drivers, people felt oppressed.

Nevertheless, the examination was mandatory, refusal resulted in a fine or even jail.

In 1968, the breathalyser Alcotest 80 of the German company Dr‘ger, that now manufactures for example the electrochemical breathalyser Drager Alcotest‘ 5820, was introduced to the British police and was accompanied by the slogan ‘Don‘t drink and drive‘, which since then has been relentlessly repeated by the media.

sensitive electrochemical breathalyzer
Ready to use electrochemical breathalyser Drager 4000

When was the first breathalyser with electiochemical sensor created?

The first breathalyser with electrochemical sensor was created in 1974 ‘ the Lion Alcometer. Data from sensor was processed by electronic system and the provided result was much more accurate and reliable. After just ten years from its invention, this device was used as a basis for prosecution and hard evidence in a court of law.

Why are breathalysers with electrochemical sensor the most recommended nowadays?

Home electrochemical breathalyzer BACtrack Trace
Electrochemical breathalyser AlcoFind PRO-X5 for everyday use
  • Electrochemical sensor is very precise and sensitive to the smallest amount of alcohol in exhaled air.
  • Electrochemical sensors in breathalysers are unaffected by endogenous substances, that is secreted by a human organism. So, for example, diabetics with unpleasant breath (Kussmaul breathing) for private use should choose breathalysers with electrochemical sensors like AlcoFind PRO-X5..
  • Breathalyser with electrochemical sensor works up to 5 years.
  • They are not influenced by external factors like cigarette smoke or chewing gum, that could alter the test conducted with a cheap semiconductor breathalyser.


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