In Chip War, historian Christopher Miller traces the history of the semiconductor integrated circuit (IC), or chip, from the late 1940’s to the present. He describes the influence of the military and the personalities who drove the semiconductor revolution and created the modern computing industry. He draws in geopolitics: the Cold War with Russia, and now at the dawn of the great de-linking, with China. It is an ambitious book that admirably explains technical, business, and strategic concepts to a general reader. Despite the stunning innovations of the industry, the countries that gave rise to it have sleep walked into a strategic trap of their own making, placing the world’s most important industry at the focal point of the world’s most intractable geopolitical problem, the China-Taiwan-USA standoff. Miller tells a remarkable history that in retrospect seems improbable, populated by some of the most interesting though unsung technologists of the past 70 years. He also shows how America’s dominance of this crucial industry came to be.
At the end of World War II, America bestrode the world with a nuclear monopoly and an economy that generated more than half the world’s output. But it was an unsung industry, electronics rather than nuclear energy, that was to define and ensure America’s continued global dominance over the next 80 years. In 1947, Bell Labs, funded by the monopoly profits of AT&T’s long distance business, incubated the development of the transistor by Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, and William Shockley, for which they were to receive the Physics Nobel Prize in 1956. Transistors could be used as on-off switches and therefore replace the expensive and unreliable vacuum tubes (or mechanical relays) in early computing machines like ENIAC, built by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania Moore School of Electrical Engineering.
Still, transistors soon proved to be limited by the sheer number of wires that had to be connected to them to create functioning logic circuits. In fact, as the number of transistors grew, the number of wires or connections would grown along with them. This became a significant physical limitation to large scale applications. Worse, connecting the wires was nightmarishly complex.