Science history: the man who defined drunk driving


Rolla Neil Harger invented the impressively named Drunkometer, forever changing police forces around the world. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


In a picture taken in 1955, a suspected drunk driver is tested using the Drunkometer.

In a picture taken in 1955, a suspected drunk driver is tested using the Drunkometer.

Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a few alcoholic beverages and then pictured themselves being told to blow into the plastic straw presented to them by a police officer – and thus thought better of sitting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle – owes a debt of gratitude to Rolla N. Harger

By the same token, for anyone who thought it was worth the risk and decided to drink and drive, and then paid the price, Harger’s name might not evince the same warm feelings.

Either way, most of us, at one time or another, either directly or indirectly, have had some interaction with his creation.

Harger is the inventor of the “Drunkometer”, the antecedent of the modern breathalyser, patented in 1936 and successfully tested in the US by police in Indianapolis on New Year’s Eve 1938.

He was born on 14 January 1890, in either Nebraska or Kansas.

The reason for the discrepancy is that in signing up for conscription for World War I he claimed Nebraska as his birthplace, but on filing for the draft during World War II he said it was Decatur County, Kansas.

He graduated from prestigious Yale University in 1922 and was hired as an assistant professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, in Indianapolis, in the newly formed department of biochemistry and pharmacology.

The Indiana History Blog, citing an article from Wired magazine, says Harger taught biochemistry and toxicology from 1922 to 1960 and headed the school’s department of biochemistry and pharmacology from 1933 to 1956.

The Drunkometer, “although a somewhat bulky device”, proved innovative in the rapid detection of alcohol consumption.

After subjects breathed into a balloon, a chemical solution was applied to the air, which darkened in colour according to the amount of alcohol detected.

From there, the level of alcohol in the person’s bloodstream was estimated using a mathematical formula, which Harger also developed.

In 1938 the inventor served on a subcommittee of the US National Safety Council that drafted an act to legalise the use of evidence from chemical tests for intoxication, and to set limits of body alcohol concentration for motorists. The act was later incorporated into national drink-driving laws.

The Smithsonian Institution’s online National Museum of American History says that in 1939, Indiana passed the first state law defining intoxication in terms of blood alcohol percentage. Indiana State Police routinely used the Drunkometer, and other states soon adopted it.

Harger died in Indianapolis on 8 August 1983, at the impressive age of 93.

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Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Rolla%20Neil%20Harger
  2. https://blog.history.in.gov/tag/rolla-n-harger/
  3. https://www.wired.com/2010/12/1231drunkometer-first-breath-test/
  4. http://americanhistory.si.edu/america-on-the-move/essays/automobile-safety
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