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The Drunkometer


In 1931, chemistry professor Roland Harger invented a device called “the drunkometer.” It was the first practical device to measure whether people were drunk. Harger deliberately made it very easy to use so judges and juries would understand how it worked. In 1938, he served on a subcommittee of the National Safety Council. He helped draft an act that would legalize the use of evidence from such chemical tests and to set the legal alcohol levels for drivers. The act was incorporated into drunken driving laws nationwide.

The drunkometer was first used on New Year’s Eve, 1938, in Indianapolis. To use the invention, a person suspected of being legally drunk breathed into a balloon. The air from the balloon was passed through a chemical solution. If the solution did not change color, there was no alcohol. But if the solution changed color, it meant there was alcohol. The greater the color change, the more alcohol was present. Indianapolis police reported that, with the end of Prohibition and a boom in car sales, drunk driving was becoming a serious danger. They were confident that the drunkometer would help them put a stop to the fast-growing problem.

But the results of the drunkometer were not consistently accepted in court. On this date in 1954, Casper Hanson of Minot was appealing his conviction on a charge of driving under the influence. His conviction was based on drunkometer results.

During the appeal, Judge Eugene A. Burdick allowed assistant city attorney Paul Campbell to demonstrate the drunkometer in court, but he did not permit additional testimony about the results of the tests. He felt this would give the city a better basis on which the evidence could be tested further in the courts. City attorney Campbell said if he lost in District Court, he’d take the case to the State Supreme Court, but he needn’t have worried. Hanson lost his appeal.

The drunkometer had a relatively short lifespan. It was replaced by the breathalyzer in 1954. The breathalyzer was invented by Robert Borkenstein, another Indiana chemistry professor. It is much smaller, more portable, and easier to use than the drunkometer, and it is still in use today.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “Court Shown Use of Drunkometer.” 17 June, 1954.

New York Times. “Roland N. Harger Dies; Invented Drunkometer.” 10 August, 1983.

Brookston Beer Bulletin.
Accessed 19 April, 2016.