İleri, Nurçin

The politics of electricity use and non-use in late Ottoman Istanbul

This article focuses on the earlier encounters and uses of electricity, its technology, and its infrastructure to understand how electricity formed a contested terrain of politics among the city’s varying actors, such as state officials, financial investors, and consumers, in late Ottoman Istanbul, roughly between the 1870s and early 1920s. I contend that people used electricity as a political tool in their everyday lives even before they could access it physically.

Electricity skepticism during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) increased Istanbul residents’ inclination for an electrified future; the longer the sultan’s prohibitions lasted, the more they fueled this inclination, causing problems about the use of electricity. In contrast to the previous regime’s skepticism about electricity use, the Committee of Union and Progress (1909–18) administrators considered electricity a public service that a larger population could use rather than a source of energy for a small, privileged elite. The first urban-scale power plant was completed in 1914. However, the inability to import technical equipment and raw materials due to political and financial troubles caused by World War I (1914–18) and the Occupation Period (1918–23) hampered electricity production and consumption, causing serious problems in electricity use on public and private scales. Amid the wave of challenges, the city inhabitants witnessed numerous unpleasant encounters with electricity use; some perished in tram accidents, while others became criminals. At a time when much of society viewed electricity as a vital element for progress and economic growth, the prevalence of crowded trams, tram accidents, blackouts, and instances of electricity theft within the Ottoman capital called into question the notion of electricity as a technological promise and public good. Consequently, the initial enthusiasm for electricity’s transformative potential waned due to tensions between expectations and daily realities, resulting in a cautious approach toward technological modernity.

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