Sons of a wealthy western Pennsylvania glasswork tycoon, Matthew and James Hardy took leave of their father's business in 1870 and went on to make one of the most important, albeit largely unrecognized discoveries of the 19th century. During the summer of 1874, while exploring catacombs and caverns deep below the surface streets of London, the two self-proclaimed adventurers and explorers stumbled upon a plasma-type gas that would ultimately be dubbed æther upon later examination by Berkley Vanderzee and Geoffrey Hawkins. An 1875 photograph of Matthew and James Hardy has been cataloged as Collection Item 20.
A patient, generous and indulgent father, Jasper Hardy wished his two sons well when they set out to see the world in the spring of 1870. Their wanderings brought them to London in early 1874, where rumors of vast networks of tunnels and caverns below the city surface piqued their interests. While preparing for their initial subterranean expedition, they met Berkley Vanderzee, from whom they acquired various supplies and mechanical instruments deemed necessary for their forthcoming journeys. Vanderzee in turn brought their plans to the attention of his friend Geoffrey Hawkins, who was intrigued enough to underwrite some of their costs and expenditures. It was on their second expedition in late August of 1874 that they made their momentous discovery. The brothers subsequently presented samples to Vanderzee and Hawkins, who named the gaseous matter æther. They took the name from Greek mythology, æther being known in that context as the substance of the heavens. Within twelve months, Vanderzee and Hawkins had developed the first functioning æther power cell.
The æther deposits that the brothers discovered were deep underground and typically engulfed in toxic gases. Successful extractions depended on the two being outfitted with specialized optics and breathing filters, thus accounting for their appearance in the above image. The Victorian Mechanical Museum displays a number of æther-collection items at their London location, including the optics and masks that Matthew and James are wearing in the photo.