hen Carleton began publishing its scientific periodical, the College's astronomy program was already well-established and well-known for an even more popular and pragmatic venture. The director of the observatory was fast on his way to creating one of the two largest and best-regulated time-services in the United States. One may truly say of astronomy at Carleton that "time" was of the essence.
Accurate timekeeping was, and is, essential for astronomical work, and it was also the one product of an observatory which had immediate practical application. Nineteenth-century railroads vied with each other to keep to their published schedules and needed precise timing to properly switch tracks and avoid collisions. Each railroad used its "own" time, usually derived from an observatory in its headquarters' city and telegraphed to each station along the line. In the 1870s, there was no major observatory northwest of Cincinnati, and the new Carleton time-service rushed in to fill the gap. In 1878 it sent out the first time-signals west of the Mississippi to several railroads centered in the Twin Cities and in Chicago.
By 1888, the Carleton time-service set time for over 12,000 miles of railroad, from Illinois and Wisconsin to Oregon and Manitoba. Clients included the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, and the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba railroads. In 1883, the observatory also began a time-ball service in St. Paul, whereby a sphere was dropped down a pole atop the Fire and Marine building at noon every day, in order that all in the city could set their watches and clocks. (The famous ceremony in Times Square every New Year is a vestige of a similar service in New York.) Time was provided, too, directly to many of the jewelers and banks in the Cities. Carleton, a small and otherwise as yet undistinguished college on the Minnesota plains, had become the timekeeper for the entire Northwest.