Sensory processing circuits in the visual and olfactory systems receive input from complex, rapidly changing environments. Although patterns of light and plumes of odor create different distributions of activity in the retina and olfactory bulb, both structures use what appears on the surface similar temporal coding strategies to convey information to higher areas in the brain. We compare temporal coding in the early stages of the olfactory and visual systems, highlighting recent progress in understanding the role of time in olfactory coding during active sensing by behaving animals. We also examine studies that address the divergent circuit mechanisms that generate temporal codes in the two systems, and find that they provide physiological information directly related to functional questions raised by neuroanatomical studies of Ramon y Cajal over a century ago. Consideration of differences in neural activity in sensory systems contributes to generating new approaches to understand signal processing.