Light bulbs have a very simple structure. At the base, they have two metal contacts, which connect to the ends of an electrical circuit. The metal contacts are attached to two stiff wires, which are attached to a thin metal filament. The filament sits in the middle of the bulb, held up by a glass mount. The wires and the filament are housed in a glass bulb, which is filled with an inert gas, such as argon.
When the bulb is hooked up to a power supply, an electric current flows from one contact to the other, through the wires and the filament. Electric current in a solid conductor is the mass movement of free electrons (electrons that are not tightly bound to an atom) from a negatively charged area to a positively charged area.
As the electrons zip along through the filament, they are constantly bumping into the atoms that make up the filament. The energy of each impact vibrates an atom -- in other words, the current heats the atoms up. A thinner conductor heats up more easily than a thicker conductor because it is more resistant to the movement of electrons.
Bound electrons in the vibrating atoms may be boosted temporarily to a higher energy level. When they fall back to their normal levels, the electrons release the extra energy in the form of photons. Metal atoms release mostly infrared light photons, which are invisible to the human eye. But if they are heated to a high enough level -- around 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 degrees C) in the case of a light bulb -- they will emit a good deal of visible light.
The filament in a light bulb is made of a long, incredibly thin length of tungsten metal. In a typical 60-watt bulb, the tungsten filament is about 6.5 feet (2 meters) long but only one-hundredth of an inch thick. The tungsten is arranged in a double coil in order to fit it all in a small space. That is, the filament is wound up to make one coil, and then this coil is wound to make a larger coil. In a 60-watt bulb, the coil is less than an inch long.
Tungsten is used in nearly all incandescent light bulbs because it is an ideal filament material. In the next section, we'll find out why this is, and we'll examine the role of the glass bulb and inert gas.
We'll look at what the filament is made of in the next section.