(“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Jan 2014, No 111)
Breath of Fresh Air
Among the more dreadful of news stories is an account of a horrific automobile fatality especially when it involves an intoxicated driver. Wasteful of human life as well as property damage is so often associated with drunk driving gone wrong.
One of the greatest deterrents is the Breathalyzer which has been called the first practical breath-testing instrument for law enforcement. The Breathalyzer’s roots began with Indiana University School of Medicine’s professor Rolla N. Hager who first developed a breath-testing instrument as early as 1938. It was given the most descriptive name when it was dubbed the Drunkometer, and although a somewhat bulky device, historically it served in the study of alcohol detection.
Robert F. Borkenstein born on August 31, 1912, grew up in Fort Wayne and became a part of the story. He first entered the work force as a photographic technician. It was during the early 1930s that he developed a color printing process, which was received favorably by the commercial market. In 1936 he took a position with the Indiana State Police and became involved with the early research and development of lie detector technology. Eventually it led to his being named captain and head of laboratory services. It was then that he noticed the importance of the Drunkometer technology, but also recognized the difficulty to operate it effectively in the field by police.
Next Borkenstein enrolled at Indiana University and began his collaboration with Dr. Hager in advancing the Drunkometer. By 1953, Borkenstein independently invented a more user-friendly means of detecting drunkenness now known as the Breathalyzer. His ingenuity served him well and when he had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1958 from Indiana University, Borkenstein was named a professor in the school’s Department of Forensic Studies that same year. When IU formed its department of Police Administration he was named its chairman.
His invention of the Breathalyzer, which he began work on during the early 1950s, revolutionized law enforcement’s efforts to measure alcohol in the blood when investigating an accident and suspecting drink as the culprit. By exhaling, breath alcohol vapors can be proportionally measured. The Breathalyzer instrument can calculate the proportion of alcohol in the blood.
When Borkenstein was elected to the National Safety Council’s Safety and Health Hall of Fame International in 1988, the Council noted that, “This technological innovation enabled traffic enforcement authorities to determine and quantify blood alcohol concentrations with sufficient accuracy to meet the demands of legal evidence.”
Other positions this Fort Wayne-born Hoosier, whose career advanced in Bloomington, included chairing the National Safety Council, president of the Academy of Criminal Justice Services, as well as the International Committee on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety and consultant to the President’s Task Force on Highway Safety. He supervised a 1981 liquor study which revealed that driving with less than two ounces of alcohol prove less dangerous than a driver who abstained. The study concluded that a little alcohol could possibly assist a driver by relaxing him behind the wheel. Nonetheless, before he died at age 89 on August 15, 2002, Robert Borkenstein advocated abstinence of any drink before driving.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi and retired Essex Vice President, is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; a contributing writer for Fort Wayne Monthly magazine; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast Mondays on Northeast Indiana Public Radio WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 FM Fort Wayne and 95.7FM South Bend.