January 20

Published in On this Day listing

  • 1894

    Above: In 1866, after an initial failure, Robert Halpin successfully laid a telegraph cable from Valentia Island (depicted here) to Newfoundland. (Illustrated London News, 28 July 1866)

    Robert Halpin (57), master mariner, died. Going to sea at the age of ten, Halpin served his apprenticeship on a coal boat, and afterwards joined a barque sailing in the North Atlantic, reaching the rank of third mate by the age of seventeen. After nine years under sail, he transferred to steam and got his first command during the American Civil War, captaining the first of several ships in the perilous business of dodging the Union blockade to bring supplies to the Confederates and returning with cotton for Europe. Finally, he won international acclaim for his work in laying sea telegraph cables, which earned him the moniker ‘Mr Cable’. He was appointed first officer of Brunel’s Great Eastern, then the world’s largest steamship, but the first attempt to lay a transatlantic cable, over a distance of 2,600 miles from Valentia to Newfoundland, failed when the cable snapped in mid-Atlantic. The second, however, was successful and was completed in 1866. Then, thanks to Halpin’s exceptional navigational skills, the exact spot where the first cable had disappeared was located; the cable was retrieved and attached to a new cable in the hold to form a second transatlantic cable. Thereafter, in command of various ships, Halpin laid over 26,000 miles of cables, a distance equivalent to the circumference of the world, linking four continents, including France to Newfoundland, Australia to Indonesia and Bombay to Suez (1869). No crew member ever suffered serious injury under his command. Having made a considerable fortune, he retired to his native Wickow, married and built himself an elaborately decorated mansion on 400 acres overlooking the sea. His premature passing was caused by gangrene, occasioned by cutting himself while trimming his toenails.

  • 2017 Donald John Trump (70), businessman and television personality, was inaugurated as 45th president of the USA.
  • 1968 Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (92), American mining magnate, businessman, philanthropist, and the first person granted honorary Irish citizenship (1957), died.
  • 1961 John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States.
  • 1894 Captain Robert Halpin (57), Wexford-born master mariner, died. Halpin was first officer of the Great Eastern when she laid the first successful transatlantic cable in 1866 from Valentia to Newfoundland.
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