Man Engines were designed to get miners down to the levels that they were working at. Before the introduction of man engines (mechanised skips or cages came much later) miners often had to climb long distances carrying their tools, supplies and food. Sometimes all they had would be a ladder down the shaft, in other mines they could walk down sloping tunnels. Miners only got paid when they started work underground, so if their journey to work was speeded up, they they could earn more.
Man engines were expensive to install and only the large mines could afford them.The first man engine in Britain was installed at Tresavean Mine in Gwennap in 1842 and the last to operate was at Levant, where a terrible accident occurred in 1919, killing 31 miners when the cap that held the rod broke
Although the adoption of the beam engine to its role as a man engine is sometimes thought to be a Cornish invention, it in fact first operated in Germany. In 1833 the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society offered a prize for the first mine to install a machine to raise and lower miners safely into the mine. It took until 1842 for the first trial man engine to be installed by Michael Loam at Tresavean Mine, Gwennap. This trial was successful, and the next year year the rods were extended from the trial 24 fathoms to the 248 fathom level (454 metres). In total sixteen man engines were installed in Cornish mines.(it is believed that in addition 1 was installed in the Isle of Man, 1 in Ireland, and 1 in South Australia.)
All Cornish mines needed an engine to pump out water. This would be a steam engine on the surface, and it would connect down a shaft with a series of rods to a pump at the bottom. Rods had a stroke of 6 to 12 ft, with a pause at the end of the stroke while the valve-gear reversed at the pumping engine. At the side of the shaft, platforms were fixed at the end of the rod's stroke and spaced a stroke apart. Steps were fixed on the pump-rods. When the pump rod paused at the end of its stroke, a man stepped on to the pump-rod platform and was carried upward on the next stroke. The man engine was a continuous rod with a series of 150 platforms, spaced at 12 feet intervals. The engine had a stroke rate of 5 per minute.
The man engine had a fairly good safety record and probably saved many miners’ lives, as accidents were caused by exhausted miners falling from ladders, particularly at the end of shifts. However a terrible tragedy struck the Levant mine on Monday 20th 1919 when the main connecting rod of the man engine broke and 31 men and boys lost their lives, most falling hundreds of fathoms to their death down the shaft. Such a calamity accelerated the decline of the mine, which shut down in 1930. A full account of this Man Engine Disaster
Mines and Mining in Cornwall