John Calvin Moss was born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, in 1838. At age 17 he became an apprentice to a Philadelphia printer. At 19, he married Mary A. Bryant who would become his partner in developing a workable photo-engraving method. Moss attributed Mary’s help to much of his success.
In 1858 Moss became a photographer and began experiments in photographic chemistry. Being both a practical photographer and a professional printer helped put him in the forefront of inventors who were striving to perfect a photo-engraving process.
Actinic Engraving Company
The Actinic Engraving Company was formed in 1871 in New York City. Michael George Duignan, who was one of Moss’ first backers, had published a massive work of a quarter million words in 1862, entitled Positive Facts without a Shadow of Doubt, which showed him to be an eccentric visionary with theories ranging from religion to philosophy to international affairs. One chapter of his book was—perhaps facetiously—titled “How to Torment Your Wife.”
Duignan urged the Actinic Company to make its national debut by publishing the first photo-engraved copy of the American Declaration of Independence. Facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence had been popular from the 1820s until the 1850s and the outbreak of the Civil War. One in eight American families had a Declaration framed on the wall of their homes. The most famous facsimiles were produced by two competing entrepreneurs, John Binns and Benjamin Tyler.
Duignan obtained the John Binns facsimile of an ornamental Declaration of Independence, published in 1819, and gave it to Moss to be photo-engraved. Duignan deleted John Binns' name from the original dedication which appears at the bottom of the document and inserted his own name. He also deleted Binns' notice of copyright: "Entered according to Act of Congress the 4th of November 1818 by John Binns of the State of Pennsylvania." Thus, Duignan falsely filed for a copyright in his own name and the copyright was granted.
In June 1872, two months later, Moss dissolved the Actinic Engraving Company and started over without Duignan. Moss later claimed rights to the improved photo-engraving process he developed in May 1872 but he made no mention of the facsimile of the Declaration of Independence he created during that period.
Moss Photo-Engraving Company
Moss found a more amenable investor and in 1873 founded the Moss Photo-Engraving Company. Scientific American and Puck and other periodicals gave him contracts that paved the way for success. He invented new machinery and techniques to speed up the process of photo-engraving.
By the early 1880s, according to Lossing, his 200 employees were annually turning out an amount of work that would have required at least 2,000 wood engravers. Moss photo-engraved original work, but a large part of his business consisted of reproducing woodcut and lithographic prints for mass production.
Thanks to Moss, America became the leader in the world for mass-producing periodicals and books that contained actual photographs instead of wood-engraved drawings.
Moss Engraving Company
Desiring to be, finally, the sole master of his own company and inventions, Moss left the Photo-Engraving Company in 1880 and established the Moss Engraving Company, which was also a success. He died twelve years later.