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Isaac Asimov Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115121).

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Asimov, Isaac (02 January 1920–06 April 1992), writer, was born in Petrovichi, USSR, the son of Judah Asimov, a merchant, and Anna Rachel Berman. Asimov’s Russian-Jewish father and mother emigrated to New York City in 1923. After a number of years working odd jobs, they bought a candy store in Brooklyn in 1926, the first of many in that borough that Asimov would help run until he was twenty-two years old. Working long hours in the candy store left Asimov’s parents with little time to raise their children. His mother was especially hard on him, frequently hitting him when she lost her temper and reminding him that he was responsible for their hand-to-mouth existence. Asimov was a precocious child who taught himself to read before he was five, and he read omnivorously thereafter. At seven he taught his younger sister to read, “somewhat against her will,” he confesses in his memoir, ...

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Benjamin Franklin. From a nineteenth-century engraving. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90398).

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Franklin, Benjamin (06 January 1706–17 April 1790), natural philosopher and writer, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, opposite the Congregational Old South Church, where the Reverend Samuel Willard baptized him the same day. The youngest son and fifteenth child of Josiah Franklin, a tallow chandler and soap maker who emigrated from England in 1683 to practice his Puritan faith, Benjamin had eleven living brothers and sisters. Five were Josiah’s children by his first wife, Anne Child, and six were by his second wife, Abiah Folger, Benjamin’s mother. Two sisters were born later....

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West, Benjamin ( March 1730–26 August 1813), astronomer and mathematician, was born in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, the son of John West, a farmer. His mother’s name is not known. Not long after his birth, the family moved to Bristol, Rhode Island, where West worked discontentedly on the family farm. West attended the town school for only three months and took a course of navigation offered by Captain Woodbury, who waived his fees for the poor farm boy. Otherwise, West was self-educated, borrowing books from local parsons’ libraries. In 1753 he married Elizabeth Smith; they had eight children. That same year West moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he opened a private school, and then a dry-goods store that also sold books and was, by some accounts, the first bookstore in town. After nearly twenty years, his business failed and his effects were seized by creditors. His bankruptcy appears to have been a consequence of the depreciation of paper currency and the decline in transatlantic commerce just before the American Revolution. After his bankruptcy, some Bostonians offered to set him up in the book business again, but West doubted he could support his growing family this way. As a patriot, he chose to manufacture clothing for the American troops during the war. At war’s end, he reopened his school in Providence....