We live in a digital world where everyone is connected and online. Friends and family even in far-flung corners of the world are only ever a click away. Instant global communication is now something we take for granted and for at least one full generation it’s all they’ve ever known. But of course this wasn’t always the case and there is a long line of inventors, engineers and innovators we have to thank for this mind-bogglingly convenient world.
Captain Robert Halpin was one of these important figures. Over 150 years ago he literally laid the foundations of modern communications when he installed the first transatlantic cable from Valentia Island in Kerry, Ireland to Hearts Content, Newfoundland, Canada. This connected two continents and ushered in the new age of global telecommunications.
Robert Halpin was born 16th February 1836. His parents ran a small dockside tavern called the Bridge House (now the Bridge Tavern) in Wicklow, a local haunt for seafarers and fishermen. Life for Robert growing up was closely intertwined with the sea. He watched the ships coming and going, the sailors working at the docks, and in the tavern he was immersed in tales of the sea and distant lands. Naturally enough he became fascinated with the sea and the ocean eventually called to him. At age ripe old age of 11 he withdrew from formal education and left home for a life at sea.
Robert jumped right in the deep end beginning his career on a seven year apprenticeship on the sailing ship Briton that was involved in the North American trade making two round trips a year. His time on the ship came to an abrupt end when it got caught in bad weather and was wrecked. Many lives went down with the Briton and for Robert who survived this would be but his first brush with death.
He finished out his long apprenticeship and throughout his career he would have many adventures. He was temporarily stranded in Australia when more than half the crew jumped ship to earn their fortune in the gold rush. But Robert’s loyalty remained and he stayed with the ship until enough crew could be mustered to man the voyage home. At 22 he was put in charge of the Argo but this would end with another close call. On returning home from their maiden voyage they got enveloped by a thick fog and struck rocks. No one was injured but the ship was ruined and Robert’s master’s ticket was suspended for nine months. For a time he was involved in the American Civil War, running the Yankee blockades bringing in supplies for the Confederate States.
But beyond these adventures what Robert Halpin is best remembered for is his contribution to global telecommunications.
The Great Eastern, designed by the legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was at the time the biggest ship on the waves – 693 feet long, 22,500 tons and could accommodate over 3000 passengers. She was unfortunately a commercial failure and instead fitted out for another purpose as a telegraph cable layer.
Robert joined the Great Eastern in 1865 as first officer. His first trip onboard was to link Europe and America by placing a 2600 mile cable from Valentia Island in Kerry to Hearts Content, Newfoundland. The first attempt to connect the United Kingdom to North America by underwater cable had been in 1858 but the connection only lasted a week before it failed. Their second attempt also failed. The cable snapped several times and eventually was lost on the ocean floor never to be retrieved.
A year later on the 13th of July 1866, with Robert at the helm, the Great Eastern left Valentia Island and returned to recover and repair the broken cable in an extraordinarily difficult feat of engineering. Two weeks later they arrived in Newfoundland with the connection completed and for the first time the two continents were successfully connected together.
From 1869 and throughout the 1870’s with Halpin as commander, the Great Eastern continued on its mission to lay cables and connect the globe. In his years at the helm it laid over 26,000 miles of cables linking France and Canada, India and Singapore and Singapore to Australia.
In 1873 he married Jessie Munn who he met in Newfoundland and would retire still young albeit with a full lifetime of incredible experiences. He built an impressive mansion in Tinakilly, now used as a guest house, and became heavily involved in local politics. He died on the 20th January 1897.