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What is a Man Engine?

Jeremy Laukkonen
Jeremy Laukkonen

A man engine was a series of reciprocating platforms that could be used to deliver men from the surface to the lower levels of a mine. The method of power was often a waterwheel, though some type of steam engine was used in many cases. A typical design consisted of two parallel rods that were lowered and raised reciprocally, each of which had a number of evenly spaced platforms for men to stand on. By walking from one platform to another in sequence, it was possible to quickly traverse the shaft. These devices were invented in the 1800s and were used into the early part of the 20th century.

The man engine was invented in Germany during the 19th century as a replacement for the very long ladders that were required to move in and out of deep mines. These ladders could be very dangerous, and fatigued men could fall from them and die. The man engine used steam or water power to move men using the same beam pumps that were often used in mines for other purposes. Despite the relative safety when compared to ladders, catastrophic failures of these devices could cause a great number of deaths at one time. One incident in the early 20th century involved the rods of a man engine collapsing into a shaft at a time when there were over 100 people riding on the device, which led to over 30 deaths.

Man with a drill
Man with a drill

Waterwheels provided the initial power source for the original man engines, and various steam engine designs were later employed. The wheel or steam engine was attached to a connecting rod, which would in turn be joined to two long beams that had been inserted down a mineshaft. Due to the mechanism used to connect the waterwheel to these beams, one would travel down as the other was moved up. Each platform was spaced so that it would line up with one platform at the bottom end of its throw and a second at the top.

In order to use a man engine, a miner would walk onto a platform on the surface. That platform would then lower him about 13 feet (four meters), at which point he could step directly onto another platform. This process would be repeated until the miner reached his working level. In order to ascend back to the surface, the process would be reversed. A variation on this system had fixed landings connected to the walls of the shaft, and a miner would step off onto one of these landings, wait for the next platform to arrive, and then step onto it.

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      Man with a drill