The Apple Dog

Entering the US is never easy, especially with children in tow. I came through Dulles airport recently with my family and had the usual hour waiting in line to get through passport control. We picked up our bags, then just as we were heading through customs, with the exit in sight, I heard a voice behind me.

“Excuse me sir, do you have an apple in your bag?”

I turned round to see a uniformed woman with a very excited dog by her side. After a brief moment of panic, I remembered – there were two apples in there earlier in the day, but luckily the kids had eaten them during the flight. I explained and let her check my bag and we were free to go. Hopefully the dog wasn’t too disappointed, but I told him he’d done well anyway. The handler told me he could identify 60 types of fruit and vegetables, but didn’t elaborate on how he could tell her which one he’d found – one can only imagine. It all happened behind me, so I’m not sure what he did on this occasion.

I knew that detection dogs could be used for drugs, explosives, and people, but I didn’t know they could do fruit and veg too. It’s all very impressive, and I’m glad that man’s best friend can help us out in so many ways – for more examples, see here (can require login, cached version here) and here.

America’s Birth Certificate

Today I took a tour of the Library of Congress, in Washington DC. It is a huge institution, consisting of over 150 million items housed within three huge buildings. (Our guide told us it was the largest library in the world, but Wikipedia claims the British Library is bigger. The Library of Congress certainly covers a larger area anyway.)

The library contains nearly 400,000 maps, over 12,000 of which have been digitised and are available online. These high resolution images allow you to pick out the smallest details, but I think you can’t beat seeing the bigger picture and viewing the maps in person. Currently, there are two mapping exhibitions in the library, Exploring the Early Americas and Mapping a New Nation: Abel Buell’s Map of the United States, 1784.

Abel Buell’s map is the first map of America, published in America, by an American. It doesn’t contain any new cartography, but was the first time a map had been produced of this new nation. The other maps in the exhibition are thought to be used by Buell as source material.

Abel Buell USA 1784

What is interesting about this map is that, at the time, the western boundaries of the new states had not been legally defined. The Constitution was not ratified until 1787, so the federal government did not have the power to establish borders or force the sale of land. As a result, cartographers decided to end each state at the Mississippi River – leaving them much larger than their current extent. In particular, I like how Connecticut continues on the other side of Pennsylvania, making it many times the state it is today.

The Early Americas exhibition, meanwhile, features documents, artifacts, paintings, and prints, as well as maps. The highlight is undoubtedly Martin Waldseemüller‘s 1507 world map, widely regarded as the first usage of the word ‘America’ to describe the new land recently discovered in the west. Waldseemüller used a feminine, Latin version of Amerigo Vespucci‘s name on this map, but later distanced himself from this coinage, preferring instead Terra Incognita. He felt that perhaps Vespucci should not get all the credit for the discovery. The map had already been turned into a popular globe, however, and the name stuck. Our guide informed us that, as a result, this map is known as America’s birth certificate.

Universalis Cosmographia

What amazed me about this map was the level of detail, particularly in Africa. I always thought that very little was known about sub-Saharan Africa until Livingstone‘s explorations of the 19th century, but the Mountains of the Moon are shown here, along with many lakes and rivers.

Our guide also told us in great detail about the map’s discovery and purchase by the library, but I won’t go into it here. As usual, Wikipedia provides all the information you’ll ever need.