The Messenger and the time-service were founded and run by the man who single-handedly was responsible for bringing astronomy to Carleton, William Wallace Payne. Not coincidentally, Payne had been in his youth an assistant at the Cincinnati Observatory for a few summers. He had studied primarily mathematics and law in college, but as math was then the discipline most closely related to astronomy, Payne was about as well-qualified an astronomer as most of his peers in the middle of the 19th century. Later, unfortunately, he would be unfairly belittled by some of the younger and better educated members of the scientific fraternity as a "lively but unprofessional figure." Notwithstanding his lack of course work in the field, he did have "a driving enthusiasm" for astronomy - an enthusiasm which would transform the struggling little college that had hired him as Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1871.
Payne wasted little time before pursuing his special interest. During his first year at Carleton he introduced an astronomy course and began purchasing some simple instruments with his own money. Six years later, he had convinced the President and Board of Trustees to build and equip a small observatory. At the time, Carleton College consisted of an old downtown hotel used as Ladies' Hall, an old house on campus used as a music hall, and Willis Hall. The combined enrollment of the preparatory academy and the college was only 200.
It might be thought that an observatory was a bit of overweening extravagance for such a small institution. But an observatory offered several advantages to the College. Not only was astronomy perhaps the most popular science of the day, but observatories could provide utilitarian benefits, such as time signals and weather reports, to the people of the region. And there was no other observatory at all in the state of Minnesota.
Construction began on a small wooden observatory in 1877. That same year, Payne purchased the school's first adequate telescope, a 4 3/10" Byrne equatorial refractor. His title was changed, fittingly, to Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy.
The observatory, which sat on the site now occupied by Laird Hall of Science, was completed the next year, and when fully equipped (at a total cost of $7,000) was a good one. The building itself was always a problem - leaky roofs, warping floors, cramped spaces - but the equipment was the finest available. The centerpiece was an 8 1/4" refractor manufactured by Alvan Clark and Sons, who were arguably the foremost refracting telescope makers of that or any other era. Next in cost and importance was a 3" Fauth transit circle, used for very precisely measuring the positions and motions of stars and planets, and hence essential for calculating sidereal and mean solar (i.e., "pocketwatch") time. Two Howard & Co. clocks (nos. 195 and 196) accurately kept the sidereal and mean solar time derived from these computations. To turn his instruments into a time-service, Payne himself constructed the first telegraph connection from the observatory to the outside world.
Over the years, this time-service was enlarged and operated amidst a running battle with what Payne called the "selfish" and "monopolistic" Western Union telegraph company. Western Union had earlier contracted with the U.S. Naval Observatory to supply time-signals throughout the country and used its considerable leverage to drive many observatory time-services out of business. Supported by the "Northwestern" railroads, which did not believe Western Union could relay time-signals from Washington as accurate as those received from Carleton, the College hung on. A few years into the 20th century the Naval Observatory and Goodsell were the only two time-services still in existence. Carleton had good reason to be so fiercely protective of the time service. The operation was not very remunerative to the College (in fact, it was not reimbursed by the railroads at all until 1887), but in terms of free publicity it was invaluable. The Trustees happily acknowledged that being recognized as the timekeeper for the Northwest brought "wide renown to the College."
Even the mechanical operation of the time-service was considered fascinating enough for several regional newspapers to publish detailed accounts of it. Nor was such fame restricted solely to the Upper Midwest. At the 1884 New Orleans Exposition, for example, Payne was asked to set up a complete working time service as part of the Minnesota state exhibit. No wonder the time service was the focus of the College's self-promotion until after the turn of the century.
In another "one of the best ways possible," the College was "extensively advertised free of charge" by the U.S. Signal Station placed at the observatory in 1881. The U.S. Signal Corps was that branch of the government initially assigned to monitor weather. and Carleton was soon collecting data on temperature, rainfall, and winds to send to Washington.
The school also sent the information to the local papers within a 200-mile radius, which happily printed them under the College's name as the only means of presenting their readers with any accurate meteorological facts. When a state weather service was organized as a branch of the renamed U.S. Weather Service in 1883, William Payne was made director, and the headquarters were established at the Carleton Observatory. Though the central office of the weather service was shifted to St. Paul in 1886, Payne remained as director until a lack of state and federal funds forced the service to be discontinued in 1889.