Even though it was invented in 1953, the breathalyzer still seems like something out of science fiction. Think about it: A stranger can appear at any point during an evening, have you blow into an electronic wand, and then can tell you exactly how much you've had to drink.
Robert F. Borkenstein invented the first blood alcohol detector with Dr. R. N. Harger, which they dubbed the Drunkometer. This led to his 1953 invention of the breathalyzer, the device we know today. When Borkenstein died in 2002, he would have still recognized the devices in use.
In the years since his passing, though, technology has advanced by degrees. From analyzers that fit on a keychain, to "stylish" inserts powered by smartphones, to those that detect other drugs, the concept has seen more than a few changes.
Most of the devices listed below are made and priced for the everyday user, which might not be a terrible thing considering the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation to lower the legal driving blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05. (grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood).
How Does a Breathalyzer Work?
Breathalyzer is a specific band name that's become commonly used like a generic (like Band-Aid and Xerox) to refer to any number of breath analyzers that detect alcohol (and now drugs) from the breath.
There are three different basic types of breathalyzers, each operating at a different level and targeted at a different market. This differentiation lies in the sensor each uses to detect alcohol in the breath. The cheapest type, which generally appears in the type you might find in a drug store, uses a semi-conductor sensor. More accurate and used in police hand-held devices and high-end consumer ones are those that sense alcohol using fuel cells. Finally, the kind housed in police stations for official readings generally use infrared spectrophotometer technology, which is astoundingly accurate.