Friday, September 19, 2008

Goodsell Observatory

From 9:50 until 11:00 this morning, I'll be in the basement classroom in this building, Carleton College's Goodsell Observatory, reading Sophocles with my class of eight wonderful students. It's a rewarding way to spend seventy minutes, and I find myself enjoying every moment spent in the classroom with Carleton students.

Goodsell Observatory is one of the oldest buildings on the Carleton College campus, and one of the most historically important. When it was built in 1887, Goodsell was equipped with a piece of German-made equipment known as a meridian circle, which was used for calculating sidereal time—that is, it enabled observers to calculate when certain stars would be visible in the night sky. But this time-keeping capability had an even more practical application. In the late nineteenth century, Goodsell Observatory became the official time-keeper for over 12,000 miles of railroad in the western United States. Time calculations made in Goodsell were wired to railroad companies throughout the west. In part because of the time service it provided, Carleton's little observatory was for many years the most important observatory west of the Mississippi.

William Wallace Payne

Beginning in 1881, Goodsell was also home to a U.S. Signal Corps station, which collected official weather data and transmitted it to the nation's capital. For a few years, Carleton's weather station was the official weather service for the state of Minnesota. Both the weather station and the time service were created and supervised by Prof. William Wallace Payne, Carleton's first professor of "mathematics and natural philosophy." According to the the book Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Time-Keeping in America, Payne worked hard to protect Carleton's monopoly on railroad time-keeping from competition from commercial rivals like Western Union. The Carleton time service remained in business until December 1931.

Links.
History of Goodsell Observatory. Carleton College.
Weather History at Carleton. Carleton College.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

"Sidereal" is one of my favorite words.

Do you think Payne Avenue in St. Paul was named for this gentleman?

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