Can IT change the course of history? The story of Graham Tottle, the IT guy trapped in Iraq

Rarely does an IT worker affect history, but in 1990 Graham Tottle was in Saddam Hussein’s HQ at the start of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait

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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.

Fighting to become a coder

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.

Tottle 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 between hotels.

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 Tottle. 

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 International airport."

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

Graham Tottle

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 1950s.

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

Graham Tottle

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 monitored."

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 the web, people’s privacy is not sustainable. So why not use this ancient computer instead?" 

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."

Graham Tottle's novel, 2040, is available on Kindle and in paperback.

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