The Catenary and Parabolic Cables

The Catenary
Assume that one has a cable which hangs under its own weight with only tangential forces acting along the length of " T0 the cable. The cable is assumed to have uniform density, w0 , along its length. x ! axis Arrange the coordinate system so that the yaxis passes through the lowest point of the w0 s cable. Consider a free-body diagram of that portion of the cable above the interval [0, x ] . Suppose that the length of this portion of the cable is s. Then its weight is w0 s . In the Figure 1 free-body diagram this is a force acting downward on that portion of the cable. There is also a tangential force T0 acting horizontally to the left in the free-body diagram. This force is due to the cable to the left of the figure. Similarly, there is a force T acting tangentially at the right in the free-body diagram. This force is due to the cable to the right of the figure. Since the cable is assumed static, the sum of the horizontal and vertical forces must be zero. This leads to two equations.
T y ! axis

T cos(! ) = T0 and T sin(! ) = w0 s
Dividing we eliminate T and get the following.
tan(! ) = w0 s T0

We rewrite this in terms of the derivative.
w dy = a ! s where a = 0 T0 dx

We take the derivative of this expression with respect to x to get the following expression.
2 2 ds d2 y ds because = 1 + ( dy = a ! 1 + ( dy dx ) dx ) 2 = a! dx dx dx

Now let p =

dy dp in the above expression to get = a ! 1 + p2 . dx dx
1

The x ! axis free-body diagram for this is given in Figure 2. Thus C1 = 0 and we get the following. C2 = y(0) ! 1 a This material is adapted from Calculus Gems by George Simmons (McGraw-Hill. T sin(! ) = w0 x and tan(! ) = w dy = a ! x where a = 0 T0 dx w0 x T0 2 . ! dp = a " dx and thus arcsinh( p) = a ! x + C1 1+ p2 ! By the choice of axes. We go through the calculations to see what shape this curve has. for instance. when x = 0 . This would happen if it were supporting a heavy horizontal span of a bridge. 256-259. 1992). y= 1 a cosh( a ! x ) + C2 Notice that the constant is determined by the y-intercept. p = 0 .This can be solved by separating variables. However. pp. The Parabolic Cable y ! axis T T0 " w0 x Figure 2 Suppose now that the cable does not have uniform density along its length. The explanation for each calculation is the same as for the catenary replacing s with x. the integration is easier and can be done in one step. p = sinh(a ! x ) and thus dy = sinh( a ! x ) dx We now find y by integrating. but has uniform density along the x-axis.

this curve is a parabola. Christiaan Huygens showed this false in 1646. Christian Huyhgens and Gottfried Leibniz also derived correct formulas for the catenary. 3 . James Bernoulli asked in 1690 what was the formula for the curve of the catenary. John Bernoulli showed in 1691 that the catenary had the form y = 1 a cosh( a ! x ) + C2 .a ! x2 y= +C 2 Thus. In 1645 Galileo thought that the catenary was a parabola.

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