The trouble with the earliest typesetting machines was always the distribution difficulty (though justification also presented persistent problems). In a letterpress print shop distribution didn’t mean what we think it means today. To distribute type is to take the individual bits of type (sorts) after they’ve been used for printing and put them back into the place they had started out from so that they could be reused for the next pages waiting to be typeset. In a hand setting world this mean distributing the sorts into the type case, putting each individual sort into the appropriate box in the case, minding your ps and qs of course, so that the compositor could start work on the new copy. Distribution would tend to be done first thing in the morning by the apprentice who had to get in early to break up the type pages which had been printed on the previous afternoon and get the individual sorts back to the starting line.

Early inventions tended to founder on this problem rather than on the easier task of getting the right sort to respond to a keystroke and drop into the right position. Type was something a printer valued. It would be obtained, at a cost, from a separate business, the type foundery, and was to that extent a “given”, representing part of the printer’s capital investment. Not until Mergenthaler and Lanston figured out that the problem could just be circumvented by recasting type every time you needed a character, was machine typesetting made truly cost effective. However the Thorne machine came close to solving the problem and was quite successful with between 1,500 and 2,000 machines produced. It traded from 1880 till about the end of World War I under the names of Thorne, Simplex and Unitype.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine used that tower to hold all the little bits of type in 90 channels where they could drop down for use in the new setting. The tower consists of two separate parts. The type for distribution would be loaded into the top, rotating part, face out, and sent to the appropriate channel in the lower part by using a series of nicks on the side of the type which distinguished every sort from every other one. Distribution could be continuous with the keyboard operator working away at the same time. After a line was set it had to be justified by a second operator, by the hand insertion of spaces and hyphens. This inefficiency was partially “justified” by suggesting that the justifier served as a sort of extra proofreader.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine is covered well at Circuitous Root, which carries many illustrations and much detail, including a link to a promotional booklet available at the Internet Archive. This booklet includes samples of the typefaces available on the Thorne, as well as testimonials from satisfied customers, including this revealing table of output and cost from APA.

The emphasis placed in the Note on the absence of heads and signatures is there to point up the efficiency even more starkly. Obviously setting a head like, say “Chapter I” would give you a quicker, easier line than the full lines of text which would follow.