THE OLD MAN WAS READING his daily paper. It was the Philadelphia paper, and the news was unremarkable, though indeed, all manner of change was going on. The year was 1784. The old man was Benjamin Franklin.

The remarkable thing about this particular day was not the news in the paper, or even the paper itself, but the ease with which he read it. That morning, he had received a new pair of eyeglasses from his spectacle maker. His old ones had worked pretty well, but at age 77 he was no spring chicken, and the old eyes needed more help.

For some years, Franklin’s eyes, never strong, had been causing him trouble when he read a book or letter. He could see at a distance well enough with his old glasses, ...

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