A brief history of the breathalyser

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Anyone who recalls the scene in the Monty Python film may understand this question as it is followed by a list of useful innovations much to the chagrin of the askers. Therefore, when the question is asked, ‘Have the Welsh ever invented anything?’, there usually follows a scratch of the head. Rugby occasionally creeps into the conversation which causes a few eyebrows to be raised. Naming Scottish inventors is apparently a much easier task, the first name often coming to mind being John Logie Baird, the electrical engineer who went on to invent the first publicly demonstrated colour television system.

Before we dismiss the idea of famous Welsh inventors however, the list is actually quite interesting.

The equals sign ‘=’ was Robert Recorde’s (1512 – 1558) significant contribution to mathematics. The boy from Tenby studied at both Oxford and Cambridge University before becoming both physician to Edward Vi and controller of the Royal Mint. The sign was described as a way ‘to avoid the tedious repetition of the words, ‘is equal to’. I will set a pair of parallel lines of one length, because no two things can be more equal’.
Even the humble ball bearing was first patented by Carmarthen based ironmaster Philip Vaughan in 1794. The design of iron balls between wheel and axle of a carriage allowed the wheels to rotate freely. It has fundamentally remained the same to this day.

Electric cars may be the current trend, but hydrogen fuel may be the future thanks to Sir Willliam Grove (1811-1896) from Swansea. He was a scientist as well as a judge, inventing the fuel cell in 1842 combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, and there is even a crater on the Moon named Grove in his honour.

We all use microphones so can thank David Hughes from Bala (1831-1900) for these. He didn’t patent his microphone design, believing it should remain publicly available for others to develop. Hymac, the workhorse of building sites around the world, is thanks to the firm Rhymney Engineering in the 1960s. Hymac is the derivation of hydraulic machine.

With many of us buying on-line now, we probably take it for granted but Sir Pryce-Pryce Jones (1834 – 1920) set up a drapery in Newtown, then a major centre for wool. He founded the first UK major mail-order business eventually selling Welsh flannel around the world. It is also likely he invented the sleeping bag in 1876 when it was first called the Euklisia Rug.

Which leads us to a police related invention, the roadside (and subsequent evidential breath testing) devices we now use for dealing with drink drivers and anti-social drinkers. In 1976 Lion of Barry South Wales, patented a breathalyser and their products are now in use in over 70 different countries around the world.

Breath testing drink drivers was ‘pioneered’ by the late, great Barbara Castle MP from Derbyshire. She was the first MP to introduce surgeries to meet her constituents and as a non-driver, she brought a fresh view to transport problems as part of the Road Safety Bill by introducing the breathalyser tests in 1967 as well as a series of radical road safety measures when she was the Minister of Transport, including the national speed limit and the beginning of seat belt legislation.

The 1967 Act introduced the first legally enforceable maximum blood alcohol level for drivers, introducing roadside breathalysers and it is from this that the process began. In 1967 William Ducie and Tom Parry Jones developed and marketed the first electronic breathalyser. Here in Cornwall, officers in Newlyn had been using a dead fish until this point on the basis that anyone drunk enough to blow into the mouth of a dead fish was too drunk to drive.

Then in 1971, the year when pounds, shillings and pence became no more and we turned to decimalisation, a young post-graduate named Paul Williams began working on his Master’s Degree at the University of Cardiff, being sponsored by Lion. His research was based on using the fuel cell sensor. In 1972 the first prototype was produced, and the research continued through 1973 for his PhD. In 1977, the first Lion SL1 was submitted for review but the SL2 model was approved in 1979 by the then Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw. The first force to use this device was Sussex Constabulary.

Things developed using the fuel cell sensor technology to more advanced devices such as the SL400 which harnessed microprocessor technology for auto-sampling, date and time recording as well as memory storage being added. It was almost the first roadside evidential device.

It was in 1983 that the first evidential breath testing device was introduced, the Lion Intoximeter which went on-line at midnight on the 5th May 1983. Dorset, Devon and Cornwall are now using the Lion Intoxilyzer 6000, bought in 1998. There are newer versions waiting to be Type Approved in the UK and are already in use around the world, based on the same fuel cell sensor first developed 50 years ago.

Words by Cf Systems