How a simple police photographer became a world expert in drunkenness

Robert Borkenstein (Fort Wayne, Indiana, August 31, 1912 – Bloomington, Indiana, August 10, 2002)

The blowpipe - the device to check whether you are driving a car under the influence - was invented in the country where the need was greatest, in the United States. It was invented by Robert Borkenstein in 1958.

He was able to protect the patent well worldwide and the bag, which many cursed, made him a wealthy man.

Borkenstein was born in 1912 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His parents were not well off and young Robert started working in a photo shop during his school years. He devised a new process for printing color photographs, an idea that he could sell for good money.

In 1936 he got a job as a photographer with the police. Almost every day he had to photograph fatal accidents involving alcohol. The fact that Prohibition had only recently been lifted undoubtedly played a role.

It bothered Borkenstein that car drivers are geniuses at coming up with an excuse. So he worked intensively for several years on the first type of lie detector. He would give lectures about this controversial device to police schools throughout his life.

Without a blood sample, it was impossible to scientifically determine whether a driver had drunk too much.

Police officers had to rely on their own observations. "Stay upright, motionless, for a minute," they said.

Or, "Blow in my face." "Walk across this white line." Did the person speak with a stiff tongue, did he laugh perhaps, or were his eyes bloodshot? A good lawyer could easily make firewood for the court from these kinds of observations.

They said their client had been exhausted, drunk or overworked. And Borkenstein couldn't stomach that.

A friend of his at Indiana University had just revealed at the time that the amount of alcohol in a person's blood can also be measured with a breath sample. After drinking, alcohol largely goes through the stomach and small intestine to the blood.

A small part of the alcohol molecules goes through the blood to the lungs. These are released in the millions of alveoli to the air that is exhaled.

Together, by 1938, they developed a system called a 'drunkometer'. But it was anything but user-friendly. The driver first had to blow into an ordinary, classic balloon. The policeman had to see that he didn't let the thing slip between his fingers.

Then the balloon had to be taken to a laboratory. There, the driver's breath was filtered through a mixture of chemicals. The resulting colors indicated how much alcohol the driver had in his blood.

Borkenstein knew that he had too little scientific knowledge to improve this system. Although he was already past forty, he started studying forensic medicine at university. By 1954 he had the modern, easy-to-use bladder bag ready.

From 1958 it was commercialized. It was not until ten years later that it hesitantly crossed the Atlantic. In an extensive study, Borkenstein showed in great detail that the limit for still driving a car properly was 0.8 promille. For many years, that 0.8 was the world standard.

For a long time the limit was 0.5 promille, but it is still falling.

The humble autodidact became a professor at Indiana University in 1958. By that time, he was also the leading American expert on drunkenness. Was Borkenstein a teetotaller or did he like a glass? Borkenstein was fond of French wine.

He liked to serve his friends a glass and he traveled every year with his wife, a French youth writer, to his beloved France to hunt for special wines. But he insisted that to get behind the wheel you had to be completely sober.

Although he was well-to-do, he could not resist looking for new inventions. In the
First there was his lie detector, but he also made a small blow machine that you could easily hang on the wall in bars and cafes. If you put a coin in and blew on a pipe, the machine would tell you how you were.

At 0.4 promille you got the text: 'Be a good driver.' Between 0.5 and 0.9 promille you were advised to leave your car at home.

At higher than 1 promille, the device said: "From now on you are a passenger." The pub owners did not like it, and said that their customers preferred not to know this special information. And the device flopped.

In a number of Western countries – Sweden, Finland, Australia, the US, Canada – judges today can impose the use of an alcolock as a punishment on alcohol addicts.

This lock is a device that prevents the driver from starting the engine after a breath test if he or she has had too much to drink. A similar law is being drafted in Belgium and the Netherlands.

The Swedish car manufacturer Volvo, also a pioneer of the safety belt, has been offering cars with an integrated 'alcoguard' since 2008. For the first time there are now cars on the market that refuse service if the driver does not pass the alcohol test.

The logical continuation of an idea that originated in the head of a humble Indiana police photographer.

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