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Modernization Efforts in Science, Technology and Industry in the Ottoman Empire (18 th and 19 th Centuries)

Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu

Ottoman science emerged and developed on the basis of the scientific legacy and institutions of the Seljukid Turks. It greatly benefited from the activities of scholars who came from Egypt , Syria , Iran , and Turkistan , which were homelands of some of the most important scientific and cultural centers of the time. The Ottomans preserved and enriched the cultural and scientific heritage of the Islamic world, giving it new dynamism and vigor. Thus, the Islamic scientific tradition reached its climax in the 16 th century. Moreover, proximity allowed the Ottomans to learn early on of European innovations and discoveries. The Ottomans began, already in 15 th century, to transfer Western technology (especially firearms, cartography, and mining), and they also had some access to Renaissance astronomy and medicine through emigrant Jewish scholars. The interests of the Ottomans remained selective, however, because of their feelings of moral and cultural superiority and the self-sufficiency of their economic and educational system. They thus did not track the scientific and intellectual developments of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, during their heyday.

In the 17 th century, contacts with Europe became closer and Ottoman knowledge of the West came through translations made from European languages, personal observations of Ottoman ambassadors who paid official visits to Europe and the modern educational institutions established in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The first work of astronomy translated from European languages was the astronomical tables by the French astronomer Noel Duret (d. ca. 1650). The translation, made by the Ottoman astronomer Tezkereci Köse İbrahim Efendi (Zigetvarlı) in 1660 was also the first book in Ottoman literature to mention Copernicus and his heliocentric system. Astronomy books subsequently translated from European languages also dealt mostly with astronomical tables. From the 16 th century onwards, the arrival of physicians and diseases from the West introduced new medical ideas and methods of prophylaxis and treatment. The medical doctrines of Paracelsus and his followers began to appear in Ottoman medical literature under the names of tıbb-ı cedid (new medicine) and tıbb-ı kimyaî (chemical medicine).

Instructors at the imperial schools of engineering or medical sciences translated and compiled books from European scientific literature. They relied on the textbooks used in European military technical or medical schools. In the 19th century, modern education became widespread, civilian education was reorganized, and new scientific and technical books were printed. The mid-19 th century thus witnessed an increase in both the number of printed books on modern science and techniques, and in the variety of subjects introduced.

Prior to the 18th century, it was not difficult for the Ottomans to keep up with European technology, for it changed relatively slowly. Large state enterprises such as the Maritime Arsenal, the Arsenal of Ordnance and Artillery, the Powder mill and the Mint, functioned fairly successfully to meet the needs of the military. In the 18th century, forced into constant retreat in Central Europe , the Ottomans gave up their policy of conquest and began to follow European developments closely, turning their attention to the cultural and technical sources of European superiority. Thus commenced a period of affluence, called the Tulip Age (1718-1730); under Western influence, new developments emerged not only in the technical fields, but also in art and architecture. Innovations such as the fire pump and the printing press were established in the Ottoman capital. Ottoman administrators who learnt about European daily life also developed a great interest in nonmilitary European inventions.

During the 18 th century, innovation in European war technology began to accelerate, and it became harder for the Ottomans to keep pace. The Ottomans sought gradually to import Western military science and to modernize their army. A first attempt was the creation in 1735 of the Corps of Bombardiers, under the supervision of the Comte de Bonneval. Besides undergoing drills, the bombardiers in this corps received theoretical training in geometry, trigonometry, ballistics, and technical drawing. In the second half of the 18 th century, a group of French experts came to Istanbul within the framework of military aid agreements. One of them, the Baron de Tott, was employed in building fortifications, in teaching new European military techniques. He established a new foundry, the "Corps de Diligents" where artillerymen were trained in the European manner, a school where courses were given for the first time on theoretical mathematics and military techniques. He introduced European techniques to the Imperial Maritime Arsenal as well. De Tott's cooperation with the Ottoman lasted six years, and he returned to France when local, French, and personal interests ceased to overlap. Between 1783-1788, numerous French military experts and officers came to Istanbul to work on various technical projects and the fortification of the Ottoman borders. When French experts, masters and teachers left Istanbul in 1788, their native Ottoman counterparts were employed in their place. In the 19 th century, European technical knowledge continued to filter through previously established schools of engineering and also through the students sent abroad to study in various fields.

During the early decades of the 18 th century, while transferring European techniques to strengthen they military power, the Ottomans started industrialization by establishing in İstanbul small-scale workshops for wool, cotton, paper, silk and porcelain manufacture. Fostered by the reforms of Sultan Mustafa III (1757-1774) and Selim III (1789-1807), the workshops established in the late 18 th century were generally designed to serve the military. As early as 1793-1794, Sultan Selim III introduced contemporary European methods and equipment for the production of cannons, rifles, mines, and gunpowder. As late as 1804, he undertook the construction of elaborate buildings to house a woolen mill for uniforms, and a paper factory. Sultan Mahmud II's reign (1808-1839) a spinning mill and a a leather tannery were built and boot works were improved. After the abolition of the Janissary Corps (1826), the army adopted European-style equipment; this, however, worked against domestic self-sufficiency. A factory was opened in 1832-1833 to manufacture the fez, a kind of headgear. In 1841, the Ottomans began to produce the fez with steam powered machines.

By 1841, the need for a massive industrial program became obvious. The enterprises set up between 1847-48 can be called imperial factories. Among these, were the Zeytinburnu Iron Factory, Izmit Woolen Cloth Factory, Hereke Silk Cloth Factory, Veliefendi Printed Wool-Cloth Factory, Mihalic State Farms, the School of Iron Ore and Agriculture in Büyükada. There were also plans to open talimhanes (training courses) on "mines, geometry, chemistry and sheep-breeding".

To serve the army's needs, the Gun Foundry and the Arsenal were installed with steam engines. The Arsenal at the Golden Horn , provided with European equipment and personnel, typifies the attitude of the Ottoman state toward technology transfer. Like the Feshane, it employed numerous foreign (particularly English, French and American) workers and administrators. Until the end of the century, Ottoman industries equipped with Western technologies depended largely on a foreign labor force.

The main purpose of founding and building imperial factories was to produce the necessary materials for the army, and to meet expenses with internal rather external resources. The bureaucrats of the Tanzimat were aware that it was as important to encourage exports as to limit imports. Nevertheless, this objective went unrealized.

In 1880's, the state shifted its emphasis from building factories to encouraging their creation by entrepreneurs. Thus, the role of the entrepreneurs gradually increased, and the number of factories grew significantly in the 1880s, when three-quarters of the Ottoman factories were established. The 19 th century attempts to industrialize, and to transfer Western technology didn't yield the expected results. This limited success may have resulted from mistakes in Ottoman policies and the pressure of foreign powers. To begin with, it was very hard for the Ottomans to find the necessary capital for industrialization; western capital investments, which entailed heavy conditions and difficulties, did not develop in the direction that they wished. Instead, western investments favored the interests of the non-Muslim subjects and ethnic groups who had cultural affinities with Europe . Moreover, the West quite naturally made its investment decisions with an eye, above all, toward profits. Ottoman attempts in the 19 th century to transfer modern technology and to found independent industrial enterprises were also hindered by deep-rooted European hostility. Although the initiatives in heavy industry met with limited success, there was a rapid growth in low-level technology transfer. For example, the yarn and dye technologies were adopted quickly and quite extensively.

The Ottomans' haste to bridge the gap with Europe and regain their old power led them to commit political errors. The Ottomans adopted modern science and technology mostly through "translations" and "purchase", and failed to produce science and develop a technology -failed, that is to establish an indigenous tradition in science and industry which would decrease their dependence on the West. I believe that this was the most critical factor that made the Ottoman experience different from that of Russia and Japan .


Son güncelleme: 01.11.2016

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