Early Electricity Developments in the Turkish Republic - Barış Sanlı


On the 29th of October 1923, Turkiye, as a republic, has been founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his friends. There was a separate parliament established in 1920, but now it was time to change the regime of the country. This regime change has brought rapid industrialization and consequent changes in the Anatolia and Tracia. One of the significant changes was how electricity policy has evolved.


Ottomans were not less innovative. But it was a little too late and a bit too narrow. The early innovative edge of the Ottomans was Imperial Navy. From the records, we can see that there was an “electricity factory” in the Navy. Since power competition was much visible across the seas, the Navy had to adopt. Records show that despite using relatively modern equipment, they could not build a domestic boiler for the ships.


The history of electricity in Anatolia has been claimed to start in 1902 with a small hydro turbine in Tarsus. It is to be challenged in IETT’s book “Electricity in Istanbul.” The book claims Yıldız Palace has some electric installations and appliances. The electrical workforce during that time was primarily based on telegraph technicians. The generators and other equipment were mostly imported from some other countries. The major engineers were educated abroad. This tradition was visible in the early managers of EİEİ (Electricity Survey and Development Administration) up until the 1950s.


The primary power plant of the Republic was Silahtarağa close to the Golden Horn. During the Ottoman time, this region was known with shipyard and coal depots. In his booklet “Electrified Turkey” Hasan Halet used the picture of Silahtarağa on the cover page as a symbol perhaps. On the next page, there are maps of electricity plants across Turkiye for several years or intervals. You can see the pace increasing after 1924. But the interconnection of all the power plants took several decades.


Electricity as a service has started in the form of concessions. Ottoman or Turkish public electricity companies were the concession holders. In that sense, Kayseri’s electricity company is unique and the only company that survives to this date. From what we understand so far, these concessions can either be given to foreigners or entrepreneurs.


The concession regime was not enough for the early republic. Most of the investors were aiming for petroleum based generators to produce electricity. It was not sustainable in the long run. During that time, there were municipality power plants, industrial power plants, and others. All these separate facilities were an inefficient way to supply electricity. There needs to be coordination and centralization.


First of all, the domestic resources of the country have to be mobilized. The primary local resource of the time was the hard coal of Zonguldak. But there are lots of resources to be found and utilized. I believe the significant change came with the establishment of several institutions in 1935. EİEİ, MTA(GD for Mineral Research and Exploration), and Etibank were the early energy institutions that shaped our contemporary energy institutions. The logic was straightforward. There were domestic resources like coal and hydro. MTA will find the mining reserves, EİEİ will survey hydro reserves, prepare and implement the electrification projects. Etibank will provide finance for such projects. Later on, these roles were mutated with the addition of DSİ (State Water Works) in 1953.


The crown jewel of these institutions is Keban Dam. Keban Dam may be the first major grand project of the Republic. Starting with surveys in the late 1930s, it was not an easy way. But one can see how late Ottoman thinking became a youthful, dynamic Turkish development. The fear of grand projects, the fear of failing has been gradually turned into a thirst for major projects and grand development.


One of my favorite questions about the early development of the Turkish Republic is “what has changed?”. The first engineers of the young Republic were Ottoman citizens, educated in the old regime. They were well aware of the need to electrify the country. When they became Turkish citizens, the development pace has increased enormously.


It is the point we see the genius of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The first difference is the determination of direction. The whole state structure has been rotated to rapid modernization and industrialization. They thought the survival of the regime does not rest on the life of a person or his family but economic and industrial independence. The second one was dynamism and self-correction of the regime. When concessions were not enough for the development aims, new institutions, new regimes have been implemented. The third one was how arts and science have pushed to the front lines of the development agenda. The laws of that time were not heavy with legal jargon but carry a pragmatism of an engineering state and the room for improvisation if things do not abide by the plans.


Today, we are thankful to our founding fathers for the modernization efforts they envisage and coordinate. What makes them different is hard to understand from today’s perspective. But at that time, the only victory was the establishment of the Republic. Building the pillars of the young republic on industrialization and economic growth enabled rapid electrifications in major cities. When this wasn’t enough, a centralized policy has been established. It was a progressive journey in the right direction with well-aimed destinations. As time passes by, we understand this more deeply.


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