It’s the secret ingredient that makes Taiwan’s chips so popular.

Growing up, he was raised in a fishing community that was encircled by sugarcane fields. The city of Taipei, which is the capital of Taiwan, was a metropolis of dusty streets and grey apartment complexes at the time, and people rarely owned cars. He had attended university to study there.

After that, he was going to attend Princeton University. The United States of America had just successfully launched a Boeing 747 into the sky and placed a man on the moon. When compared to the economies of the Soviet Union, Japan, Germany, and France combined, its economy was far greater.

“When I landed, I was shocked,” Dr. Shih, who is now 77 years old, stated. “I thought to myself: Taiwan is so poor, I must do something to try and help make it better off.”

Indeed, he did it. A group of young engineers with a lot of ambition, led by Dr. Shih, transformed an island that was previously known for exporting sugar and t-shirts into a powerhouse in the field of electronics.

Rich and hip, Taipei is the city of today. High-speed trains travel at speeds of up to 218 miles per hour (350 kilometers per hour) along the west coast of the island. At one point in time, Taipei 101 was the highest skyscraper in the world. It now stands as a symbol of the city’s wealth and towers over the metropolis.

Most of that can be attributed to a very small gadget that is no bigger than a fingernail. The wafer-thin silicon semiconductor, which is now more commonly referred to as a chip, is at the core of every piece of technology that we make use of, from air travel to mobile phones.

More than half of the chips that our lives are powered by are now manufactured in Taiwan. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the company that handles the majority of its manufacturing operations, is the ninth most valuable company in the world.

To put it another way, this renders Taiwan fragile and nearly irreplaceable. Despite the fact that China is spending billions of dollars to grab Taiwan’s crown, it is concerned that it may be shut off from the most modern chips. Or, as it has regularly threatened to do, it might attempt to seize control of the island.

However, Taiwan’s journey to chip superstardom will not be simple to imitate because the island possesses a secret sauce that has been perfected by its engineers over the course of several decades of painstaking work. In addition, the manufacturing industry is dependent on a complex network of economic relationships, which the United States and China are currently working to dismantle.

From sugar to silicon

According to Dr. Shih, “the United States was just beginning the semiconductor revolution” when he came at Princeton.

It had only been ten years since Robert Noyce had created the “monolithic integrated circuit,” which consisted of packaging electrical components onto a single wafer of silicon. This was an early version of the microchip, which was the catalyst that sparked the revolution in personal computers.

During the two years that followed Dr. Shih’s graduation, he worked at Burroughs Corporation, which was the second largest computer manufacturer at the time, designing memory chips.

During that time period, Taiwan was looking for a new national sector to develop as a result of an oil crisis that had severely impacted its exports. It appeared like silicon could be a viable option, and Dr. Shih believed that he could be of assistance: “I thought it was time to come home.”

During the latter part of the 1970s, he joined Taiwan’s most talented and intelligent electrical engineers at a brand-new research lab. The Industrial Technology Research Institute, which had a stoic-sounding name, would go on to play a significant part in the transformation of the island’s economy.

Hsinchu, a little city located south of Taipei, was the location where work first began. Today, Hsinchu is a worldwide electronics hub that is dominated by the massive fabrication plants owned by TSMC. A number of the cleanest places on the planet may be found in these chip plants, each of which is the size of several football fields. The most intricate aspects of the production process are a closely guarded secret, and no cameras from the outside are permitted.

The three-nanometer chips that are going to be used in the next generation of iPhones will shortly be manufactured at the newest facility, which is located in southern Taiwan and is worth over twenty billion dollars.

Dr. Shih and his colleagues created an experimental plant in the 1970s, and all of this is a significant departure from what they had envisioned taking place at that time. The fact that they had technology that was licensed from a big electronics manufacturer in the United States gave them reason to be optimistic; nonetheless, to everyone’s amazement, the factory exceeded its parent. There is no easy way to explain why Taiwan has been so successful, and the exact recipe for that success is still a mystery to this day.

The recall of Dr. Shih is more straightforward: “The output was superior to that of the initial RCA plant, while the costs were reduced.” The government gained the confidence that perhaps we could actually do something as a result of this.

The original money was provided by the government of Taiwan, initially for the United Microelectronics Corporation and later, in 1987, for TSMC, which would go on to become the largest chip factory in the world.