A former Idahoan has invented a "time machine" that will give researchers not a glimpse into the future but a gander at the past.

Billionths of a second in the past.Edward F. Kelley's faster-than-a-speeding-bullet device is called an image-preserving optical delay. It enables a camera to take pictures of high-speed events, like the formation of bolts of electricity, that previously could not be photographed.

The invention is aiding research in insulation used in high-voltage electrical equipment such as transformers.

"There's a big need for it," Kelley said in a phone interview from his office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. "If we could model electrical breakdown, we could understand how we could improve power apparatus."

That could mean cheaper and more efficient, compact and reliable transformers.

Kelley, 39, who graduated from Shoshone High School and the University of Idaho, has worked at the institute for 11 years in materials research with electric power industry applications. He holds a doctorate in physics from Montana State University.

At the core of the optical delay is a system of mirrors: a 12-inch spherical mirror mounted (in front of the picture) about 13 feet from a cluster of smaller mirrors (by Kelley's hands).

The beam of laser light bounces back and forth between the clustered mirrors and the spherical mirror. The beam traces a path that is 120 meters long before it strikes the film in a special camera (behind the fence). The method almost eliminates optical distortions.

That distance translates into a time delay of 395 billionths of a second. It is long enough for the electronic camera to record what happened before the shutter was triggered and opened.

"It is actually storing it (the image) in the air, so you can photograph it," Kelley said.

Ordinary photographic methods work when taking a picture of a fully developed flash of electricity, as in a lightning bolt, but aren't quick enough to show how the flash is generated and develops.