Make a Light Bulb with Batteries

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When was the last time you lived without electric lights? Maybe a thunderstorm, hurricane, or blizzard caused a power outage in your neighborhood. Many of us feel so uncomfortable without electricity that we keep gasoline-powered generators on hand to minimize the effects of such an unexpected loss of power. Nevertheless, just 150 years ago, most of the world lived their normal lives without electricity and the dependable light that it supplies. One hundred years before that, and “normal” life was almost what it had been for perhaps 5000 years – only fire (torch, candle, etc.) to light the night. Now we have electric lighting almost everywhere we go, and with this activity you will be able to create your own.

  • Learn about Electrical Engineering
  • Make a Lightbulb
  • Learn about the history of the lightbulb and its inventor

Age Levels: 11-18
Time: 1 hour or less
Inquiry Unit/Lesson Plan, Activity PDF

Safety Notice: This hands-on activity is designed for classroom use only, with supervision by a teacher, as this hands-on activity, when replicated as described, generates an electric circuit, and will create a flame burst under the glass. (Please be advised that IEEE shall not be responsible for any injuries or damage related to the use of these lesson plans or any activities described herein.)

Build Materials (For each team)

  • Safety Glasses
  • Safety Gloves
  • Glass Jar
  • Cardboard paper towel tube, or toilet paper tube
  • Either 2 long wires with alligator clips, or 4 short ones clipped together to make two long wires. (Available on Amazon, Home Depot, Loews, Walmart, and Auto supply stores, etc.)
  • 8 D Batteries (the large ones) (Each D battery is 1.5V, connecting them all will provide 12V)
  • Pencil lead (use 0.5 mm) (these break easily, so you might want to have more than one handy)
  • Electrical Tape
  • Scissors

Edison’s Complete System
A key aspect of Edison’s success comes from his foresight to create a research laboratory. He is the first inventor to develop such a lab for inventive work. Funding from the Edison Electric Light Company allows Edison to expand his shop, from the addition of a larger machine shop and the expansion of his electrical and chemical labs to increased staff and the development of an electric station, Edison creates a complete incandescent light system that fascinates the world.


Lewis Howard Latimer
Seldom told is the story of Lewis Howard Latimer, yet his name should be synonymous with the history of electric light. The self-taught son of fugitive slaves, Latimer’s career spans from exemplary service for the Union in the Civil War to drafting a patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, to working for the famous inventor Hiram Maxim. In addition, he travels the world installing some of the first electric light facilities and winds up working for Thomas Alva Edison’s company, where he becomes the only African American “Edison Pioneer”.

Thomas A. Edison’s patent for “Fitting and Fixture for Electric Lamps”. Patented on 18 October 1881.

Photograph of an electric lamp being illuminated by passing a current through the body of Mark Twain. 

Promotional literature for the Westinghouse Electric Co. 

“Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1928)…attended only grade school, and the remainder of his education was self-taught…He had a fabulous appetite for reading, drawing, and learning in general. In 1880, Herman Maxim, Chief Engineer and Electrician for the United States Lighting Company, who was very impressed with Latimer’s talents as a draftsman, hired him. Latimer took this opportunity to learn about the electric industry. 

Artifacts that give insight into what was used for illumination in the Ancient Era.

Design Challenge

Using the listed materials teams of students will construct a makeshift lightbulb. Watch the demonstration video below to see an example.

  1. Tape the batteries together, in a line, with electrical tape. Begin with five batteries and slowly add them until it lights up. Be sure that all the positive battery ends are touching the negative battery ends before taping, and that they remain touching when all are taped together.Safety Notice: This hands-on activity is designed for classroom use only, with supervision by a teacher, as this hands-on activity, when replicated as described, generates an electric circuit, and will create a flame burst under the glass.
  2. Cut the cardboard tube so that it is short enough to fit in the glass jar when the glass jar is placed over it; at the same time, make sure the cardboard tube is tall enough that it reaches halfway to the top of the jar.
  3. Tape one end of the first alligator wire to the top of the cut cardboard, so that the alligator clip itself is set above the cardboard tube, and so that the bottom of the alligator clip is securely taped to the cardboard tube. Do be sure you can squeeze the alligator so it will open.
  4. Tape the second alligator wire to the cardboard tube in the same fashion as above, so that the alligator clip itself is almost opposite the alligator clip already taped to the tube. Note: The pencil lead will be situated, and clipped, between the two alligator clips that are taped to the cardboard at the top, so be sure the width between the clips is close enough to allow for this to be done.
  5. Stand the cardboard tube up so that the taped alligator clips are facing up.
  6. Take one pencil lead and clip it to each of the alligator clips that are taped to the top of the cardboard tube. Ensure the pencil lead is secure and doesn’t break. If it breaks, remove the broken pencil lead from the alligator clip and try again with a new pencil lead.
  7. Stand the cardboard tube up, with the pencil lead in the alligator clips on top and the wires extending out to each side. Place the glass jar over the cardboard tube, so that the bottom of the glass jar is over and covering the cardboard tube with the pencil lead that is between and clipped to the alligator clips.
  8. Shut off the lights.
  9. Put on safety gloves as the alligator clips can get very hot during this step. Take the alligator clips on the other end of the wires, and at the same time, connect one alligator clip to the open positive battery end on the connected batteries, and connect the other wire’s alligator clip and connect it to the open negative battery end of the connected batteries. Again, connect these at the same time. It will light up!

Student Reflection

  1. What was life like before electric lighting?
  2. What inventions and innovations contributed to the development of the incandescent light?
  3. What were the challenges associated with the mass delivery of electric lighting?
  4. How has electric lighting been used to change the world we live in?

Time Modification

The lesson can be done in as little as 1 class period for older students. However, to help students from feeling rushed and to ensure student success (especially for younger students), split the lesson into two periods giving students more time to brainstorm, test ideas and finalize their design. Conduct the testing and debrief in the next class period.

Although electricity generated excitement, and although electrical companies worked hard to gain a domestic market for the power, its use spread slowly, suggesting consumer resistance linked to cost, availability, and alternatives. Electricity first entered homes as batteries for fire and burglar alarms; and potential customers learned that electric lights would neither asphyxiated people nor set the house afire with an exposed flame.

By the early twentieth century, electricity played an ever-increasing and complex role in everyday life in western society as consumers gradually became more dependent on it as a source of energy for light, heat, and power. On the eve of the Second World War nearly 80 percent of the residential dwellings in the United States had electricity as their primary form of illumination. However, more than 20 percent continued to rely on either kerosene or gasoline lighting and almost one percent still used gas lighting. The gap between those using electric lighting in urban and rural America was much wider. According to the 1940 U.S. Census, almost all residents of urban communities and metropolitan districts had electric lighting in their homes and rural-nonfarm dwellings hovered around the national average. However, nearly two-thirds of rural farm dwellings continued to rely on kerosene or gasoline illumination. Indeed, the adoption of new technology is seldom a linear and complete process, but more and more people were accustomed to seeing and using electricity by midcentury. However, In the first decade of the twentieth century, depending on locale, construction, availability, and personal finances, a wide-variety of lighting sources might be found in use, including: candles; kerosene; gasoline; coal or water gas; incandescent coal or water gas with mantles; electric arc light; incandescent electric light; and acetylene gas lighting.

Today, the developed world, and to some degree the developing world, is dependent on electricity for many daily conveniences such as heating homes; brewing morning beverages; refrigerating foodstuffs; powering computers; illuminating residences, offices, recreational spaces, and streets; and operating the traffic lights people sometimes ignore. This dependency is recognized when electric service is disrupted as skyscrapers become dysfunctional, cities come to a near standstill, and urban centers sometimes erupt, resulting in incidents of civil unrest and looting that are broadcast on the evening news. When power is lost people also worry about defrosting refrigerators and maintaining light, heat, air-conditioning, and water service in their homes and businesses.

This unit explores the connections between the invention, commercialization, and adoption of electric lighting as well as alternative forms of artificial illumination in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Teachers are encouraged to use the following notes as they prepare for this unit and consult the additional resources listed at the end of this document for more information.

Electric light and power has forever changed the world in which we live. At the age of twenty-nine, Thomas Alva Edison builds his Menlo Park laboratory where he begins to focus on the incandescent lamp and the electrical system that supplies power to it. From gas lighting and arc lighting to incandescent lighting the story briefly explains Edison’s important role in solving the problem of incandescent light. He became known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park” for his work on the phonograph and soon after plays an important role in developing the electric light.

An illustration of testing the first incandescent lamp in Edison’s lab.

Lesson Plan Translation

Downloadable Student Certificate of Completion