December 31, 1938 The Drunkometer

Guidelines set up in 1939 by the National Safety Council and the American Medical Association gave three ranges for blood alcohol content, which would become the standard in a majority of state legislatures:
• 0.05% and below: Defendants should not be considered under the influence
• 0.05% to 0.15%: Not considered “under the influence” but taken into account if other evidence is presented
• 0.15% and above: Presumed “under the influence” of alcohol
Today national standards for BAC are .08% for drivers 21 and over with state limits ranging from 0.00 to 0.02 for younger drivers.

The first recorded drunk driving arrest came about in 1897 when London taxi driver George Smith, crashed into a building. Smith entered a plea of guilty after his arrest and was sentenced to a fine of 25 shillings, equivalent to $33.49 USD, in 2021.

In the US at this time transportation more often, involved a horse. There were 4,192 vehicles on US roads in 1900 mostly steam and electric with a mere 936 running, on internal combustion. The Automobile Club of America estimated 200,000 motorized cars in the United States in 1909. By 1916 the number skyrocketed, to 2.25 million.

Early postcard warning of the dangers, of driving drunk.

As roads became more numerous and cars got faster the drunk driver’s primary concern was no longer, falling off his horse. Now pedestrians and other motorists were increasingly at risk. New York was the first state to enact drunk driving laws, in 1910.

“Prohibition” went into effect at midnight, January 16, 1920. It was now illegal to import, export, transport or sell intoxicating liquor, wine or beer in the United States.

It was a disaster. Portable stills went on sale within a week and organized smuggling was quick to follow. California grape growers increased acreage by over 700% over the first five years, selling dry blocks of grapes as “bricks of Rhine” or “blocks of Port”. The mayor of New York City personally sent instructions to constituents, on how to make wine.

Frustrated by the lack of compliance the federal government ordered the deliberate poisoning of industrial alcohols in 1926 to prevent bootleggers from “renaturing” the stuff, as drinkable alcohol. By some estimates the federal government’s poisoning program killed as many as 10,000 of its own people.

For thirteen years federal prohibition did little more than empower the mob, and destroy the nation’s 5th largest industry. It’s hard to compare alcohol consumption rates before and during prohibition but, if death by cirrhosis of the liver is any indication, alcohol consumption never went down more than 10 to 20 percent. Revelers continued to get behind the wheel, and drive.

In 1927, Dr. Emil Bogen’s landmark study established a scientific method of determining inebriation by testing the blood, urine or breath of a subject. An individual would breathe into an apparatus not unlike a football bladder where chemicals would change to various colors, depending on exposure to alcohol. Colors were then compared with a collection of vials to determination the amount of alcohol in the system. The system worked but it wasn’t very practical, for a traffic stop.

One W.D. McNally published the picture below in the November 1927 issue of Science and Invention with the promise that a method was coming soon, to reliably determine blood alcohol levels.

Prohibition was repealed in late 1933. In the first six months of 1934 Chicago reported a four-fold increase in drunk driving fatalities over the same period of the last full year, of Prohibition. Los Angeles reported similar numbers.

A conceptual breakthrough happened in 1931 when Indiana University biochemist Dr. Rolla N. Harger announced his own method for measuring blood alcohol content, by means of a breath test. By 1938 Harger had a working model of a new machine, small enough for practical use in the field. Indiana State Police first put the device to use on December 31.

By 1940 police departments across the nation were using Harger’s device like the one pictured here, at the New Jersey State police.

When asked what they called their device Harger and his team called the thing, a “Drunkometer”. Whether they were serious or the name was a joke is a matter for conjecture, but the modern breathalyzer, was here to stay.

Eighty three years to the day it is New Year’s Eve, 2021. Tonight, revelers the world over will celebrate the New Year.  I wish you and yours a safe, healthy and prosperous new year and if you need to, you can always call a cab. Just make sure the guy’s name isn’t, George Smith.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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