Ambitious yet Ambivalent: Electrical Infrastructure and Inequality in Early Republican Turkey
By Nurçin İleri
The year 1933 was particularly significant in the history of Turkey. Following a long preparation process, the tenth-year anniversary of the Republic, which ran day and night on 29 October, was held more gloriously than those in previous years, serving as a model for the future. Many newspapers covered the past achievements and the celebration day in detail. For instance, the newspaper Hakimiyeti Milliye (People’s Sovereignty), published a massive special issue of 97 pages on the very same day. It included information on the successful projects of the Republican regime in the fields of industry, agriculture, medicine, education, health, architecture, and public works. Other contemporary newspapers also featured heartfelt celebrations, including conferences, marches, and nocturnal illuminations. The interviews, images, and statistical data enriching the news aimed to materialize the republican ideology in popular opinion. It was an effort to bolster a sense of nationalism among citizens with an emphasis on progress, development and unity.
Among the accomplishments covered by newspapers, infrastructure projects were significant. The infrastructure facilities, such as water, sewage, transportation, or electricity services in various cities, reflected political rationality, and administrative and material systems. These also projected the local dimensions of this national success and progress. Building upon a series of short vignettes, I explore the origins of electrical infrastructure in early Republican Turkey and the ambivalence that it generated. I argue that there was an inherent tension between the use of electricity as a propaganda tool and its practical use as an everyday technology. Turkey’s electrification remained quite inadequate compared to what the Republican authorities had initially targeted, and the electrical infrastructure functioned as “precarious assemblies” of political, social, and material networks that had the tendency to collapse or fail, turning the sentiments of hope into disappointment among the public.
Towards Brighter Lives with Electricity?
The Ottoman ruling authorities approached electricity use with infrastructural, financial, and political scepticism when electrical technology started to be used in industrial, public, and domestic spaces in many cities around the world towards the end of the nineteenth century. During the reign of Abdülhamid II. (r. 1876–1909), electricity usage remained limited to a very small and privileged group of people who installed private generators in their homes, hotels, or shops. Despite the Ottoman ruling authorities’ scepticism over electricity, the demand for electricity services in many parts of the empire increased daily. Following the Young Turk revolution in 1908, these popular demands were considered, and the parliamentary bureaucrats took administrative and legal steps to develop electrical networks across cities. However, the conflicts that started with the Balkan Wars (1912–1913) and lasted until the War of Independence (1919–1922) caused restrictions, such as a lack of technical and raw materials, or coal shortages, hampering the electrification projects.
The electricity production, distribution, and consumption, which hitherto remained limited to public lighting and transportation in the late Ottoman period, started to increase gradually in the early years of the Republic. Under the patronage of foreign and local investors or municipalities, numerous power plants were opened in many cities of Turkey, and urban electricity networks expanded. Like other colonial or national settings in various geographies and historical contexts, the Republican elite also aimed to use electrical technology to achieve their political agenda and goals, where electric power inevitably had new connotations.
For instance, illumination, one of the most spectacular aspects of electrical technology, had a foundational as well as symbolic importance for the Republican regime. As Sibel Bozdoğan has also argued, the Republican regime adopted the term “enlightenment,” both in a “literal and metaphorical sense.” Undoubtedly, public lighting through different means, such as kerosene, oil, coal gas, or electricity, was common in previous centuries during celebrations. It signified the presence or oversight of the Ottoman authorities, and the financial and patrimonial power of certain classes. But, electrical lighting and its infrastructure, such as power plants, substations, aerial and underground lines, electrical poles, and luminous lights in the early Republican period was considered more overarching.
On the tenth anniversary of the Republic, along with many events, conferences, and marches held during the day, the government ensured that monuments, triumphal arches, official buildings, and public parks had to be illuminated. These dazzling structures were also ornamented with illuminated apophthegms for an aesthetic appeal, putting a spotlight on the national rule and power. Like Bozdoğan, I also argue that this “conquest of night” by electricity represented the replacement of illiteracy with literacy, insecurity with safety, disorder with order, infelicity with joy. These visual manifestations were not only about the here and now, but they conveyed the political message that the new regime was overcoming the darkness associated with the Ottoman past. They also aimed to stimulate the spirit of progress, admiration, optimism, belonging, and togetherness among citizens who gathered under the bright light.
This faith in the transformative power of electricity blending with national propaganda was not peculiar to the vision of the ruling authorities. The contemporary intelligentsia had worked towards it over the past ten years. Hasan Halet, an engineer and a professor at Robert College, penned a book titled Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi, Elektrikli Türkiye (The Republic of Turkey, Electrified Turkey) for introducing the technical capabilities of the recently founded power plants and growing electrical networks in various Anatolian cities in Turkey. The book described the transformation of daily life via the impact of electricity, its products and infrastructure. During this ten-year rule, Halet reported that the illumination of the cities and towns played an essential role in decreasing all kinds of crime, thereby increasing public security. Moreover, cities and towns started to have a vivid nightlife where people gathered in the clubs, socialized, and exchanged their ideas. Instead of oil and gas lamps that gave insufficient light, the expanding use of cleaner and brighter electrical lamps reduced eyesight problems and increased visibility at night. Alongside these developments, the Republican Party spent efforts to improve radio broadcasting in the removed corners of the country. People in the remotest villages favored the opportunity to closely follow the developments in the Western world, thanks to the travelling cinemas. While this account may not be entirely accurate, it reveals how electricity had ideological overtones and delineates the possible tangible transformation that electrification projects brought about in people’s everyday lives. The ambitious project of spreading electricity to the entire country aimed not only to ensure public order, but also the emergence of daily and nocturnal recreation areas, cultivation of literate citizens, and fulfilment of public health. Things that had been temporally and spatially distant became accessible to the people through increasing literacy rates, and the prevalence of radios and cinemas. At the same time, these developments made people visible and accessible to the state itself. Electricity was more than a pleasant convenience as it provided a ground for the government’s political goals. It served as an ideologically charged medium as well as a disciplinary technology for the authorities, which intended to illuminate, and also educate and direct the citizens.
In a period when electricity gained a multi-layered political currency, its real value and success were directly related to the noticeable increase in electricity production, the number of subscribers, and its consumption in the country. The newspaper Hakimiyeti Milliye reflected that electricity production, which was 68,893,622 kWh in 1928, reached 110,405,229 kWh in 1932, and, in 1932, the number of subscribers reached 115,868 from 61,479 in 1928. Considering the population of Turkey, around 15.5 million in 1933, this rate was very low. Besides, this increase was mainly attributed to cities, such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Even in these cities, those who could benefit from electrical energy belonged to the upper segment of the society. Thus, Turkey’s electrification remained inadequate compared to the initial targets of Republican authorities. In other words, the ambitious and discursive realm of the Republican elite did not necessarily translate into better electricity services in the country.
With delightful pictures, progressive statistics, and luminous spaces, the Republican elite had promised development, equality, and freedom to the people of Turkey through the grand narrative of electrification. However, this history is filled with examples of unintended consequences. In his essay “Elektrikli Türkiye” (“Electrical Turkey”) written for the journal Kadro in 1933, Mehmet Şevki Yazman, an engineer and politician, expressed his concerns about the use of electrical energy:
We want Turkey to be electrified. Because electrification of Turkey means rendering the coal under the ground of Zonguldak and the water falling from the high rocks of Taurus into the service of the Turkish economy. We want electricity not only to ornament the Turkish city, but also to lighten up the dark Turkish villages, to transform the outdated loom technology into a hi-tech factory, and to process Turkish goods with electricity for cleaner and cheaper extraction. In all, we want electricity not as an ornament, but as a principal power that serves our economy. We want it to be cheap, available everywhere and accessible to everyone.
Reflecting Yazman’s expectations of the future, this piece was also a strict criticism of the then-current situation. The transformation of natural resources into electrical energy for the “own good of human beings” had not been very well developed yet in Turkey. There was a lack of proper planning to harness the real potential of these natural resources. Regarding the use of electricity, Yazman emphasized distributional justice, criticizing the regional hierarchies between urban and rural, and the west and the east of the country. For him, anyone anywhere should have access to electricity services in an affordable way. Yet, a wider segment of society equitably accessing electrical energy had been only an illusion. Owing to high installation costs and charges, electricity remained a luxury that only a limited number of the city-dwellers could afford.
The discontent arising from the precarious conditions inherent to electrical infrastructure was evident through various channels. The public and city columns of newspapers were full of letters from city inhabitants who demanded electricity for their neighborhoods. These demands were mainly from the peripheral areas of the cities or neighborhoods that were in the city center, but which were not considered important in terms of their demographics. The luminous spaces were generally those where the wealthy lived, while dark or dim-lit spaces were the parts of the city inhabited by the poor, immigrants, or workers. Thus, while highlighting the prioritized urban spaces, such as the central roads or wealthy neighborhoods, the use of electricity continued to create spatial segregation within the city, mainly accompanied by social disparity.
Moreover, being connected to the electricity grid did not necessarily mean that the electricity service was always available. The complaints about the frequent power cuts were quite common in columns of the city newspapers. Let me provide some examples from Istanbul, as it was the most electrified city at the time. Power failures in Istanbul were a huge problem. Istanbul had only one urban-scale power plant, and any problems at Silahtarağa Power Plant could easily leave the entire city in darkness. An excerpt from a letter written in 1931 by the manager of the plant in Istanbul, which was addressed to the headquarters of an electricity company in Brussels, exemplified the city’s electricity network as a precarious assembly:
In Istanbul, we have been in an incomparable situation. We believe there is not such a city like Istanbul, which only owns one power plant that provides electricity for illumination, transportation, food, or entertainment for seven hundred thousand people. In fact, God forbid, in case there is a long-term blackout, I cannot even have the courage to speak of the consequences. In this case, we would be in a terrible situation.
This excerpt from the letter sheds light on the reality of electricity as a promise and disrupts the illusion of brilliance and sophistication bolstered by the authorities or propagandists. It saliently reveals the fear and anxiety caused by a potential power outage in Istanbul. Newspapers also featured intermittent power outages affecting the city’s daily routine: the halt in the operation of electric trams, people shrouded in darkness in various recreation areas or households at night, and factories devoid of the main energy source for production. The reasons for the power outages ranged from damage to infrastructure (turbines, substations, grid circuits, or cables) to technical errors. In addition, illegal use of electricity or power theft also caused interruption in supply. Due to the ever-increasing prices of installation and consumption, it was a common practice among people to illegally tap into the electrical trunk lines, wind wires on plugs, and tamper with electric meters to steal electricity.
Work accidents, including injuries and deaths, were perhaps the most horrid consequences of the electricity-based infrastructure. Employees working on the shop floor or at electrical grids were prone to accidents that could result from the slightest carelessness. The stories of those who died or were injured in factories, on streets, or at home due to electrical shocks or big fires were recorded in state reports or newspapers in just a few lines, and were unfortunately lost in the grandeur of the electrification portrayal.
The narrative of 1933, which aimed to generate the spirit of progress, development, or optimism, glossed over the everyday experiences of electricity, such as blackouts, illegal use, or work accidents in the past ten years. Electricity with its infrastructure and products played an essential role in the embodiment of the Republican ideology at a discursive level, but in practice, the usage of electricity remained very limited compared to what the Republican authorities had targeted, deepening the existing spatial and social inequalities in cities, between urban and rural populations. These ambitious, yet ambivalent characteristics associated with electricity usage in the early years of Republican Turkey also demonstrated that people’s affective uptake of infrastructure or technology had not always been shaped by the spirit of promise, hope, or optimism. On the contrary, electrification contributed to the discontent over socio-spatial disparity shaped by the notions of presence and absence, light and darkness, and equality and inequality, which resonated in the very material and social networks of infrastructures as precarious assemblies.
Perhaps we do not need to go back to 1930 Turkey to understand the socio-spatial segregation that electricity usage generates. The recent pandemic not only made us rethink the energy sources we consume and the technical capacities of infrastructural services such as water, transportation, electricity, and the internet, but also deepened the inequalities in relation to access to these sources and services.
 For a detailed discussion on the importance of aesthetic dimensions of infrastructures, see Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42, (2013): 327–43. I borrow the concept “precarious assemblies” from Hannah Appel, Nikhil Anand, and Akhil Gupta, The Promise of Infrastructure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 3.
 For a list of cities and towns that had urban power plants and developed electrical services, see Tevfik Çavdar, Türkiye’de Enerji, Cumhuriyet Dönemi Türkiye Ansiklopedisi, (İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1983), 691.
 Gabrielle Hecht defines this act of “designing or using technology to constitute, embody, or enact political goals” as “techno-politics.” See Gabrielle Hecht, “Technology, Politics, and National Identity in France,” in Michael Thad Allen and Gabrielle Hecht (eds.) Technologies of Power: Essays in Honor of Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001), 256.
 Sibel Bozdoğan, Modernizm ve Ulusun İnşası: Erken Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi’nde Mimari Kültür, trans. Tuncay Birkan (İstanbul: Metis Yayınları, 2002), 145–47. The emphasis on “enlightenment” was not particular to the Republican regime. Criticism of obscurantism and old regimes had been quite common during the revolutionary periods. For a historical analysis of the use of enlightenment ideology concerning illumination, see Stéphanie Le Gallic, Sara B. Pritchard, “Light(s) and darkness(es): Looking back, looking forward”, Journal of Energy History/Revue d’Histoire de l’Énergie, n°2, published 1 July 2019.
 Avner Wishnitzer, “Shedding New Light: Outdoor Illumination in Late Ottoman Istanbul,” eds. J. Meier, U. Hasenöhrl, & K. Krause, in Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society (London: Routledge, 2014), 66–84; and Nurçin İleri, “Allure of the Light, Fear of the Dark: Nighttime Illumination, Spectacle, and Order in Fin-de-Siècle Istanbul,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 2 (37) (2017), 280–98.
 Bozdoğan, Modernizm ve Ulusun İnşası, 149.
 Robert College, located in Istanbul, was the oldest American school founded outside the USA in 1863.
 Hasan Halet, Cumhuriyet Türkiyesi: Elektrikli Türkiye (İstanbul: Fazilet Matbaası, 1933), 12–13.
 For a detailed discussion about this multi-layered efficiency, see Bahar Emgin Şavk, Servant Princess of the Modern Home: Domesticity and Femininity in Turkey after Electrification, 1923–1950. (Unpublished Dissertation) Ankara: İhsan Doğramacı Bilkent Üniversitesi, 2014, 51–58.
 Mehmet Şevki Yazman, “Elektrikli Türkiye” Kadro Aylık Fikir Mecmuası (13), 1933: 35.
 The accounts of Yazman and Halet demonstrate that the electrification projects mainly intensified in the western part of the country. Ibid., and Halet, Elektrikli Türkiye, 1.
 “Biraz İnsaf” Cumhuriyet, 9 Ağustos 1930, 2; “Beylerbeyi ve Çengelköy halkı elektrik istiyor” Cumhuriyet, 18 June 1931, 2; and “Elektrik şirketinin nazarı dikkatine” Cumhuriyet, 16 Ağustos 1931, 6.
 In the history of lighting or electricity use in general, this dichotomy of spatial and social segregation has been quite pertinent both in the Global North and South. See Le Gallic and Pritchard, “Light(s) and darkness(es): Looking back, looking forward,” 5.
 Prime Ministry Republican Archives, Ankara [hereafter, CCA], 30-10-0-0_157-104-2, 5 May 1938. Since 1914, the electricity company was under the patronage of SOFİNA, a multinational consortium that had its center in Brussels. This would continue until the nationalization of the company in 1937.
 CCA, 230-0-0-0 / 27-21-10 Elektrik kesintisi hakkında rapor, 30 September 1924; “Evvelki akşam Inkita” Cumhuriyet, 15 September 1929, 2; “Evvelki akşam karanlıkta kalmamızın esbabı” Cumhuriyet, 9 February 1930, 2; and “Elektrik direği üzerinde kömür olan hırsız” Cumhuriyet, 1 Eylül 1931, 3.
 CCA, 230-0-0-0_49-78-3, 19 January 1929; “Bir genç kız ampul takarken elektriklendi ve öldü” Cumhuriyet, 6 March 1929, 4; “Elektrik Şirketinin Amelesi Feci surette öldü” Cumhuriyet, 1 November 1929, 5; “Elektrik Cereyanına tutuldu” Cumhuriyet, 6 November 1929, 4; “Ford Fabrikasında bir mühendis elektriklendi” Cumhuriyet, 14 January 1930, 4; and “İstanbul’daki dünkü haile” Cumhuriyet, 6 August 1931, 1.
Nurçin İleri is a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2020/22, associated with IGK Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History (re:work) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her dissertation focused on the social and material geographies of night in late Ottoman Istanbul. She has taught at Binghamton University, Boğaziçi University, and Işık University, and worked as an assistant coordinator at the Boğaziçi University Archives and Documentation Center. She continues to work on urban history, the history of science and technology, and archival and cultural heritage studies in the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Nurçin ist also one of the editors of the TRAFO series Factory Reloaded.
Further articles in the Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies series on TRAFO:
İlkay Yilmaz, Photography as Policing Infrastructure During the Late Ottoman Empire, 11 March 2021.
İlkay Yilmaz, Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies: Call for Contributions to the Series, 25 February 2021.
Citation: Nurçin İleri, “Ambitious yet Ambivalent: Electrical Infrastructure and Inequality in Early Republican Turkey” in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27972.