Book Review — Chip War by Chris Miller

'Tosin Adeoti
7 min readOct 29, 2023

On Wednesday, I finished reading “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology” by Chris Miller. Published in 2022, this book masterfully unfolds the intricate story of how semiconductors evolved to become the linchpin of our modern existence.

Pause for a moment, and redirect your gaze from this screen to the device that holds it. Concealed beneath its sleek exterior are intricate chips, diverse and sophisticated, enabling your machine to seamlessly execute a myriad of functions.

The chip industry, though young, boasts humble beginnings. As early as 1940, this realm was nonexistent. Imagine a microchip, dwarfing your fingernail, housing computer circuitry known as an integrated circuit. This innovation, pioneered independently by Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, stands as a historic leap forward, underpinning the core of nearly every modern product.

The story of how Kilby developed his is particularly noteworthy. He had joined a new company, Texas Instruments, around the company’s July holiday period. Without vacation time and his colleagues out on vacation, he was left alone in the lab for weeks. Kilby pondered how to streamline the wiring of transistors. His revelation? Assemble multiple components on the same semiconductor material rather than using separate pieces. Thus, the integrated circuit, colloquially known as a “chip,” was born.

And that ability to harness computing power more effectively than any other power through chips became the basis for America’s global military. In fact, as you will see clearly in the book, America emerged victorious during the cold war because the Soviet Union made a lot of mistakes in their chip production process. Many do not know that before Silicon Valley came alive, the Soviets already had one — the city of Zelenograd. It was to be a place to develop the world’s most advanced computers. But while America allowed the unleashing of the creative genius of entrepreneurs, the Soviets stifled it. The Soviet bureaucracy was obsessed with the progress America was making and thought it better to copy America as best as possible. Unfortunately, a “copy it” strategy was fundamentally flawed. Copying worked in building nuclear weapons, but simply stealing a chip, like the Soviets were doing, didn’t explain how it was made, just as stealing a cake can’t explain how it was baked.

“The recipe for chips was already extraordinarily complicated. Every step of the process of making chips involved specialized knowledge that was rarely shared outside of a specific company. This type of know-how was often not even written down. Soviet spies were among the best in the business, but the semiconductor production process required more details and knowledge than even the most capable agent could steal.”

America’s victory during the cold was was so decisive that Nikolai Ogarkov, who served as chief of the general staff of the Soviet military from 1977 to 1984, confessed, “the Cold War is over and you [America] have won.”

What came next was America doing its best to consolidate its victory by ensuring that its allies got access to the technology that made it victorious, starting with Japan. Akio Morita’s Sony benefited a lot from this American policy of technology transfer. In fact, Sony comes from the Latin sonus (sound) and the American nickname “sonny.” Such was the influence of America on the Japanese manufacturing and technological industries. A great by-product of that was that while certain products were not seen as commercially viable by American companies, Japanese companies made them work. A good example was how American companies thought the handheld calculators they invented would not have commercial usefulness and could not market it. Sony did and captured the market.

And it was not only Japan. Many other Asian countries followed suit. One of the twists was that while America was looking for allies, many Asian countries wanted nothing to do with the communists and actively courted America. Taiwan’s example is worth mentioning. The 1960s had been a good decade for Taiwan’s economy but disastrous for its foreign policy. The island’s dictator, Chiang Kai-shek, still dreamed of reconquering the mainland, but the military balance had shifted decisively against him. In 1964, Beijing tested its first atomic weapon. A thermonuclear weapon test shortly followed. Facing a nuclear China, Taiwan needed American security guarantees more than ever. That alliance has created the most important technology factory in the world, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, without which your iPhone as you have it might not exist.

When Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew in 1973 told U.S. president Richard Nixon he was counting on exports to “sop up unemployment” in Singapore, American companies like Texas Instruments and National Semiconductors built assembly facilities in the city-state. Many other chipmakers followed. By the end of the 1970s, American semiconductor firms employed tens of thousands of workers internationally, including in Singapore. From South Korea to Taiwan, Malaysia to Singapore and Hong Kong, these anti-Communist governments sought out American support, and they got very wealthy.

As I read, I couldn’t help thinking if I have anyone in my circle who knows Bosun Tijani, the 46-year-old tech executive who was recently made Nigeria’s minister of Communications, Innovation, and Digital Economy. I need to squeeze this book into his hands. When I saw that his first policy is to train 3 million technical talents over the next four years, I could not help thinking if he knows how the technology industry is spurred by the government. Is he not putting the cart before the horse? Is he not taking on the roles that the industry should be championing? It reminded me of the Soviet Union. Yuri Osokin, an ambitious young engineer with an encyclopedic memory, had been charged with building semiconductor devices for the Soviet space program and the military. But political meddling would not allow him to do his work. He was eventually removed from his job. The KGB had demanded that he fire several of his employees. When Osokin refused to punish these workers for their “crimes,” the KGB ousted him and tried to have his wife fired, too. It was hard enough to design chips in normal times. Doing so while battling the KGB was impossible. Bureaucracy!

The last section of the book was devoted to China, as it should be. From a backwater country as early as the 1960s, China has come to flex muscles at the top echelon of the semiconductor industry. After opening up the country after the death of Chairman Mao and embracing the market system, China is now standing toe-to-toe with the United States. The small country of Taiwan, which China lays claim to, may be the cause of the start of World War III if China decides to act. To protect itself from foreign interference, the current Chinese president is rolling back the policy of Deng Xiaoping of the 1970s and 1980s. China is not helped that during most years of the 2000s and 2010s, it spent more money importing semiconductors than oil. High-powered chips were as important as hydrocarbons in fueling China’s economic growth. Unlike oil, though, the supply of chips is monopolized by China’s geopolitical rivals.

So, China has been doing all it can to get as many of these products produced in its country through the use of its state-backed companies to steal intellectual properties and close off its 1.4-billion people market to foreign companies. America has seen this before with Japan in the 1980s, but where Japan failed, there are fears that China might succeed and disrupt the global semiconductor industry.

#WIL I was impressed that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull bought himself a 474-page book titled “A Comprehensive Guide to 5G Security” to study the topic so that he could ask better questions of his tech experts. In the end, his knowledge gave him the confidence to make Australia become the first country to formally cut China’s Huawei’s equipment from its 5G networks, a decision that was soon followed by Japan, New Zealand, and others.

“Chip War,” by Chris Miller, who teaches at Tufts University, is illuminating, timely, and fascinating. It makes you realize that to make sense of the current state of politics, economics, and technology, we must first understand the vital role played by chips. When I picked it up to read, my brother told me that it is a really fantastic book, saying, “it has the 3 things I like: History, Economics, and Technology.” I found it to be quite enjoyable. Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 alone are worth the value of this book. I read them three times.

That a professor of international history has this depth of understanding of the science and technology of the semiconductor industry is impressive, as is his elegant and engaging writing style. But Chris, if there is a second edition, note that current does not flow ‘across’ a device. Voltage drops ‘across’ while current flows ‘through’ a material. A physicist’s touch might refine other technical nuances I found in many places. Also, given that this is a 450-page book, a chapter explaining the evolution of microprocessors from 8 bit to 64 bit and the type of software and operating systems which they supported would enrich the reader’s understanding.

But hey, this was a fantastic book, and I recommend it.

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