“Borkenstein and His Monster: The Man Behind the Breathalyzer” — A New Exhibit at the IU Archives

OFFICIAL Press Release: New exhibit at the Indiana University Archives on display now through May!

Borkenstein and His Monster: The Man Behind the Breathalyzer

Robert F. Borkenstein working on his Breathalyzer Prototype, invented in 1954.
Robert F. Borkenstein working on his Breathalyzer Prototype, invented in 1954.

Over the course of his life, Professor Robert F. Borkenstein (1912-2002) rose from a full career in the police ranks to become an Indiana University professor, administrator, and highly respected leader in forensic science and traffic safety. Borkenstein’s most celebrated single achievement was his groundbreaking invention of the Breathalyzer in 1954. This instrument, which uses breath samples to measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), was the first practical device for roadside BAC testing for use by police officers investigating traffic violations and accidents. In the years since its initial invention, the Breathalyzer went on to revolutionize law enforcement practices and legislation concerning traffic safety and the combat against drunk driving.

A portion of the mechanical plans submitted along with Borkenstein's original Breathalyzer patent application, 1954.
A portion of the mechanical plans submitted along with Borkenstein’s original Breathalyzer patent application, 1954.

The Robert F. Borkenstein Papers at the Indiana University Archives contain a rich record of Borkenstein’s many professional and personal endeavors as well as his enduring influence, beginning in the 1930s and extending to the present. Highlights from this collection—including the original Breathalyzer prototype, several successive models, photographs, mechanical designs, and evidence of Borkenstein’s extensive influence—are featured on display through May.

All are encourage to visit the exhibit in the Indiana University Archives reception area (room E460) on the fourth floor of Wells Library at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Curated by Amy Jankowski, graduate student studying under the Archives Specialization in School of Library and Information Science.

Borkenstein (third from left) stands with colleagues displaying his Breathalyzer Prototype, circa 1954.
Borkenstein (third from left) stands with colleagues displaying his Breathalyzer Prototype, circa 1954.

Notes from the Curator: Earlier this semester, I had the pleasure of processing the Robert F. Borkenstein papers. The collection contains many document types that I am accustomed to working with in the archives, including correspondence, photographs, awards, news clippings, writings, and the like. However, the paper-based materials in this particular collection are complemented by more than a dozen three-dimensional artifacts, which are products of Borkenstein’s research into breath test technology with the goal of measuring blood alcohol content of motorists. In fact, Borkenstein was the inventor of the Breathalyzer–the portable, easily operated device used for decades by United States police forces in the combat against drunk driving.

Borkenstein examining a Breathalyzer Model 900B, manufactured by the Drager Corporation, circa 1985-1995.
Borkenstein examining a Breathalyzer Model 900B, manufactured by the Drager Corporation, circa 1985-1995.

Through his inventions, research, and heavy involvement in national discussions on traffic safety, Borkenstein became a renowned professional icon and a noteworthy figure in Indiana University’s history. Because of his significant influence and the visually engaging nature of his materials, the IU Archives decided to install an exhibit showcasing a number of Borkenstein’s Breathalyzer instruments and complimentary documents.  It provides an excellent opportunity for students, staff, researchers, and the otherwise curious to explore the diversity of the Archives’ holdings and learn a bit more about one of IU’s celebrated personalities from years past.

I hope you have the opportunity to swing by and take a look at the exhibit!

Arts, Crafts, and Preservation

These past few weeks have been a flurry of activity in the archives as fellow co-worker Amy finishes her exhibit of Robert Borkenstein, inventor of the Breathalyzer. She’s done a great job putting together such a large exhibit in so short a time, and it will be ready this weekend for the SAA-SC Conference being held at IU. If you can, come up to the archives office and check it out! There is a variety of materials in the exhibit, from Breathalyzer prototypes to newspaper clippings to photographs. It is a visually interesting exhibit!

While I had little to do with curating the exhibit, I was able to help out a little bit by mounting some of the photos. This was a big deal for me; I’ve never had this opportunity before. As an undergraduate student archival assistant, I was probably not trusted enough to try my hand at mounts that would adequately support and display the photograph. Dina Kellams taught me how to cut through thick foam board with an Exacto knife and straight edge, then attach strips of clear plastic to the corners to hold the photograph or newspaper clipping. (All these materials are, naturally, archival quality.) I found it a little nerve-wracking to size up and create the foam board backing – after all, one of the first principles taught in archival preservation is to keep knives and pencils away from the materials – but I would say that the four photograph mounts I created turned out all right. We have boxes of old mounts that can be recycled into new exhibits, but finding a mount that exactly fits your material is tricky. I had to leave one oddly-cut newspaper clipping on the table for a more experienced worker to handle. It will take a little work to become an expert in archival mounting, but my first foray into that project was a fun experience.

Reference questions for the archives, though very usual, have not been fielded my way in the past two weeks, so I’ve had time to finish up the publications series in Nugent’s papers. There is still a little cleaning up to do, but for the most part they have all been organized into 17 boxes. It’s pleasant to open up the boxes and see the neat, clean rows of manila folders. That might be one of my favorite results of processing. Of course, the organization and accessibility of the papers is an important result as well. For the most part, the publications series is organized chronologically, within the subseries of monographs, articles, and reviews. Nugent has been a very prolific writer and it’s not unusual for him to have written, and kept, over six drafts of one article, which takes up space quickly. I haven’t counted how many different publications are in those 17 boxes, but I would guess well over 100. Looking around me at all the boxes in this room alone, it boggles my mind at how much information and knowledge (institutional, professional, and personal) in so many formats is kept and preserved in archives.

In Nugent’s older writings, nearly everything in the boxes were bound with rusty paperclips or staples. Needless to say, this is undesirable from a preservation standpoint as the rust will stain and wear away at the paper, in addition to creating “rust dust” that is not pretty nor healthy for the papers. One of the main reasons processing can take so long is that all these paper clips and staples must be removed before the papers can be filed away. As I’m sure many processors have done, I used to have competitions with my co-workers to see who could fill up a jar with discolored metal faster. Newer paperclips and staples that have not yet become discolored are less of a preservation concern, since the climate control in archives helps prevent rusting, but it remains a problem to watch for in archives.

All in all, it’s been a good two weeks for learning new preservation skills and reinforcing old preservation standards.