The Thorne/Simplex/Unitype Type-Setting Machine is now largely forgotten, even in otherwise thorough histories of type.
So completely did the hot metal composing technologies of the Linotype and the Monotype dominate the 20th century that the transition from hand to machine composition is now usually seen as an instantaneous event dated to the introduction of the Linotype in 1886 (or 1890).
Yet the Thorne (later called the Simplex, and later still the Unitype) deserves to be remembered.
It worked. It was commercially successful. It was manufactured in quantity (1,500 to 2,000 machines). Its makers survived for over three decades (Thorne patented it in 1880, and the successor company appeared in business directories until at least 1918.
Imagine that it is the mid 1880s and you are responsible for a printing establishment. For more than 400 years, metal type has dominated printing (with some competition from lithography in recent years).
Metal type is the basis of your shop and your life. At the same time, type has always been an expensive, precious commodity.
Composition – typesetting – by hand is even more expensive. Making type more cheaply is something you can’t do – that’s the typefounders’ business. But setting type more cheaply is something that you’d very much like to be able to do in your own shop.
In such an environment, the obvious thing you need is a machine to set type.
The Thorne was just such a machine. It let you set type from a keyboard. It assisted in the justification of lines, Perhaps most importantly, it automated the tedious distribution of type for re-use after printing.
It was compact, probably quiet (I suspect that no one in living memory has heard one operate), and would have fit well into any composing room.
It even had sophisticated keyboard features for entering entire words simultaneously which have not been matched even by computers today.
As the Unitype selling agents Wood & Nathan Co. said in 1910, it “does not compel the printer to take up methods which are foreign to his training, but with cheap type and type of foundry excellence it adds its power of speedy composition without disorganizing the methods of the composing room.”