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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Wired Ottomans: A Sociotechnical History of the Telegraph and the Modern Ottoman Empire, 1855-1911

  • Author(s): Lewis, Pauline Lucy
  • Advisor(s): Gelvin, James L
  • et al.
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This dissertation explores the connection between telegraphy and the emergence of new institutions, practices, and imaginaries in the modern Ottoman Empire. First established during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Ottoman telegraph system grew into a complex network of human and non-human actors that shaped both the material and imaginative landscape of the empire. Emphasizing the co-constructive relationship between telegraphic infrastructure and Ottoman society, this study examines how the telegraph was a mode for specific practices and discourses that were unique to modernity as it emerged in the empire, specifically the development of territorial sovereignty; the rising ethos of technocratic authority; the interdependence of the Ottoman state with foreign companies; and new conceptions of time and space among Ottoman citizens.

This study also positions the history of the Ottoman telegraph network within the broader story of global telegraphy. Drawing on sources from the Ottoman state, Arabic and Turkish literature, British telegraph companies, and the International Telegraph Union, it reveals how telegraphy both supported and strained the process of Ottoman state-building in an increasingly connected world. First, this study shows how the development and operation of telegraphic infrastructure contributed to practices and discourses associated with modern governance, specifically territorial sovereignty and technocratic authority. The building and managing of an expansive, grounded, and technical network required the Ottoman state to perform new functions, such as defending remote territory and maintaining a corps of telegraphers who were knowledgeable in the “universal” science of telegraphy. Second, this study demonstrates how the network acted as a site for the empire’s participation in the globalization of the late nineteenth century, which was marked by the transnational reach of British capital and the new epistemic framework offered by electrical communication. From the Ottoman state’s partnership with British companies to manage its submarine cables, to the emergence of new temporal and spatial concepts that could only exist in a telegraphic episteme, the network connected the empire to a world governed by European technical norms and electrical speed.

The study concludes with a brief discussion on the role of the telegraph network in the Armenian Genocide, exploring how the technology’s form and its social practices set particular temporal and spatial parameters for the catastrophe. By offering new possibilities and constraints to the Ottoman state and society, the sociotechnical network of the telegraph undergirded modernity as it emerged in the empire, in its grandest and most brutal forms.

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This item is under embargo until December 12, 2020.