It is rare for an IT worker to affect history, but in 1990 Graham Tottle was in Saddam Hussein’s
HQ when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Tottle had been sent to Iraq to redesign the country’s Agricultural Projects database,
previously held as a Lotus spreadsheet (Arabic Lotus), so that it would form a networked relational
database built on dBASE.
The database was designed to hold a huge amount of information on 850 projects – areas, crop,
inputs, expected outputs, finance, historical production records, and so on, says Tottle.
This could then be summarised, crop by crop, to predict total production. He says this was a
more efficient way to model the data than using a spreadsheet such as Lotus.
Tottle was working as a UN farming consultant, teaching his Iraqi counterparts in Baghdad and
helping to develop the production database for Iraqi agriculture.
Graham Tottle became interested in computers while serving with the Royal Signals in the 1950s.
Responding to a quiz in The Times, he ended up being hired by the English Electric Company,
which later became ICL, the UK’s first major computer company.
“I was hired as a systems analyst and I fought to become a programmer,” he says. This was the
era of mainframe – there were no operating systems. “We wrote our own systems program,” says
Tottle. Among the software he created was the UK’s first index sequential file handler.
The system built a model of Iraq’s agricultural output based on a detailed production return
from the previous year’s data.
Clearly, such a database would be a key strategic tool to limit the impact of UK and US
sanctions on Iraq.
Tuttle says: “As I guessed at that time, Saddam’s capacity to be afflicted by sanctions was to
become a vital consideration in the US and UK decision whether to set out and rely on sanctions or
to go to war.”
But on 2 August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Tottle found himself in the office of the Iraq
Agriculture Planning Division located within a massively fortified skyscraper, three floors above
Saddam Hussein’s office. Tottle was among 3,000 foreign nationals who were rounded up and moved
He eventually took refuge at the UN library. “We used our shortwave radios to listen to Margaret
Thatcher ‘vomiting poison like a spotted serpent’, as Saddam Hussein put it,” says
During the day, he spent his time training UN staff and designing a database for peach
production and playing on Microsoft Flight Simulator 4, “practising take-offs from Saddam
Saddam’s capacity to be afflicted by sanctions was to become a
vital consideration in the US and UK decision whether to set out and rely on sanctions or to go to
A week later, while trying to escape across the Jordanian border, Tottle noticed a missile
hidden under a motorway bridge. His group was turned back at the border, and on returning to
Baghdad, he briefed MI6 about the hidden rocket. “I found out it was an Al-Abbas [a variant of the
Scud] long-range missile, which the Iraqis had kept on the eastern border, and were being shifted
to attack Tel Aviv,” he says.
Agriculture planning and war
Iraq’s agriculture program started life as a paper Tottle originally wrote in 1959, based on
some of the ideas in the US Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) project management tool,
which had been created to support the development of the Polaris submarine weapon system in the
During the mid-1960s to late 1970s, Tottle worked at the English Electric Company, which later
became ICL. He left to form a software company, Agricultural Computer Systems International, which
built farming software for developing nations.
The software was used in countries such as Malaysia, which produces a quarter of the world’s
rubber. “There are 300,000 rubber farmers in Malaysia,” says Tottle. “The computer program produced
plans for replanting rubber trees, and an action list.”
Iraq was not the only time Tottle found his expertise in agricultural IT being used in the midst
of a conflict. It was also used in the 1990s during the so-called “banana wars”, when the US put
pressure on Caribbean banana producers over preferential EU tariffs.
Scottish independence and the swinging 60s
Now, 24 years after the start of the first Iraq war, Tottle’s experiences in the country have
been committed to print, as the backdrop to his new novel, 2040,
which was published in July.
Drawing on his own experiences, the book describes a farming consultant working on an
agricultural production database before the first Iraq war. “The events in Iraq were quite
traumatic,” says Tottle. “Saddam Hussein had already wiped out 40,000 of his own population by
bombing them with chemical weapons. What would happen if he bombed the world?”
In 2040, Tottle explores this premise and the development of computers and information
systems, looking at the dangers to individual liberty and the surveillance society.
We are tracking almost every human activity. I try to picture
this in the book
The novel depicts an alternative reality, which begins with the Iraqi dictator using chemicals
weapons on the West. This alternative universe, called Downside, is set in the future, when
Scotland has become independent and government snooping on civilians is taken to extremes.
Tottle believes people have become far too tolerant of the ever-present surveillance society,
where CCTV and internet monitoring track all their activities. “We are tracking almost every human
activity,” he says. “I try to picture this in the book, where individuals are being controlled and
Now imagine how the state could use information gleaned from the internet of things. In his
book, Tottle describes how a young woman gets stuck in an internet-controlled toilet in
Macclesfield. In another example, a couple driving a car are stopped by the police and asked where
they are going because the car “should not be there”.
But there is hope, in the form of KDF6, a “tight little 1960s mainframe” built by English
Electric for one of its first customers, says Tottle. Why choose a 1960s mainframe? Firstly,
machines built at that time were pre-internet, says Tottle. “It is well known that due to Microsoft
and the web, people’s privacy is not sustainable. So why not use this ancient computer
Incidentally, the English Electric Company took over Leo, maker of the world’s first commercial
computer, and later merged with International Computers and Tabulators under Harold Wilson’s Labour
government in 1968 to form ICL, the UK’s answer to IBM. English
Electric Company was also where Tottle began his IT career.
As for Scottish independence, Tottle says: “I am against it. I feel people have forgotten what a
great joint history Britain has had.”
Tottle’s novel, 2040,
available on Kindle and in paperback.
IT for consulting and business services,
IT risk management,
Business intelligence and analytics,
Privacy and data protection,
IT for government and public sector,
VIEW ALL TOPICS
Article source: http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240227336/Can-IT-change-the-course-of-history