Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Light Bulb Filament Length
Name: Ellen
Status: student
Grade: other
Location: OR 
Country: N/A
Date: 5/31/2005

I wanted to know how long the average light bulb filament is. My Current Science Magazine said that the filament was much longer than the science room. (pretty big!)

Not my subject, but I wonder about the length. The fact the bulb is sealed with a gas inside, leads me to think it works on an atomic level. The current through the filament exciting atoms and electrons. The ultimate product light. I do know something ticker takes longer to react, so a thin filament, probably of some exotic material works best. I recall Edison trying many things for the filament on the first bulb. So I can see thin, but my guess would be a smaller amount of feet, than room size. Even 4 feet of a finer than hair like wire, when wound is a lot of work and not that small. What kind of filament would be in a Christmas tree light bulb? Just the logic of cost. In the dollar store you can get two or three bulbs for a dollar. If there were filaments of 30 to 40 feet, that would not seem consistent with cost, especially if the filament is special. I might even try an experiment to take one apart, you may not nee to do unwinding just look closely with a good magnifying glass.

James Przewoznik

That sounds slightly exaggerated, but the filaments in 120vac bulbs are much longer than they look inside the bulb. They have to be, to have the high resistance needed to draw the right amount of power at 120v. (remember Power = Volts^2 / Resistance, P=V^2/R.)

If you get a 12v tungsten-halogen bulb, the kind made entirely of clear glass and a wire, you can see the real filament, and it is sometimes a simple spiral of visibly thick shiny wire.

For 120v operation, they need to make the wire much thinner and longer, and pack it into the same bulb, and preferably keep it all close together for efficiency and longer life. So they double- spiral the long, tiny wire. First it is coiled very tightly, around a diameter almost the same as the thicker wire in a 12v bulb. then they spiral _that_ into the large visible spiral which you may be able to see if the bulb's glass is clear. Then it is bent into the overall U shape which points its ends into the glass base.

12v is low voltage and it takes a largish 4 amps to make 50watts. 12v/4 amps is only 3 ohms. Just a longish piece of medium-thin wire, hot.

120v is high voltage and it takes less, 0.4 amps, to make 50watts. 120v / 0.4 amps is 300 ohms, which does take many feet of medium-thin wire, or a few feet of thinner-than a hair wire.

Jim Swenson

Click here to return to the Engineering Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory