In a wood-paneled office overlooking Taipei and the jungle-covered mountains that surround the Taiwanese capital, Morris Chang recently pulled out an old book stamped with technicolor patterns.
It was titled “Introduction to VLSI Systems,” a graduate-level textbook describing the intricacies of computer chip design. Mr. Chang, 92, held it up with reverence.
“I want to show you the date of this book, 1980,” he said. The timing was important, he added, as it was “the earliest piece” in a puzzle that came together for him — altering not only his career but also the course of the global electronics industry.
The insight that Mr. Chang gained from the textbook was deceptively simple: the idea that microchips, which act as the brains of computers, could be designed in one place but manufactured somewhere else. The notion went against the semiconductor industry’s standard practice at the time.
So at the age of 54, when many people begin thinking more about retirement, Mr. Chang instead put himself on a path to turn his insight into a reality. The engineer left his adopted country, the United States, and moved to Taiwan where he founded Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC. The company does not design chips, but it has become the world’s biggest manufacturer of cutting-edge microprocessors for customers including Apple and Nvidia.
Today, the company that partially exists because of a textbook is a $500 billion juggernaut that has put the most advanced chips in iPhones, cars, supercomputers and fighter jets. So critical are its airplane-hangar-size chip factories, called fabs, that the United States, Japan and Europe have courted TSMC to build them in their neck of the woods. Over the past decade, China has also invested hundreds of billions of dollars to recreate what TSMC has done.
Mr. Chang’s unlikely entrepreneurial journey helped Taiwan become an economic giant, restructured the way the electronics industry worked and ultimately charted a new geopolitical reality in which a linchpin of global economic growth lies in one of the world’s most volatile spots.
That has thrust Mr. Chang, and the company he created, into the spotlight. And at the twilight of his career, a man who has preferred to remain in the shadows reflected on what he has built and what it means to no longer be able to stay under the radar.
“It doesn’t make me feel particularly good,” said Mr. Chang, who retired in 2018 but still appears at TSMC events. “I would rather stay relatively unknown.”
Over a recent three-hour discussion in his office, Mr. Chang made it clear that he identifies as American — he obtained his U.S. citizenship in 1962 — at a time when the company he founded is at the center of a technological Cold War between the United States and China. Even as the rivalry for tech leadership intensifies, he does not give China much of a chance for semiconductor supremacy.
“We control all the choke points,” Mr. Chang said, referring collectively to the United States and its