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30.

Malfattis Problem
Within a given triangle, construct three circles each of which is tangent to the
other two and to two sides of the triangle.
C

Figure 1
This famous problem was posed by the Italian mathematician Malfatti (1731-1807) in
1803 and solved in the tenth volume of the Memorie di Matematica e di Fisica della Societ
italiana delle Scienze. This algebraic-geometric solution can be found, for example, in vol.
123 of Ostwalds Klassicker der exakten Wissenschaften (Supplement). The purely
geometric solution of Malfattis problem given by Jacob Steiner from 1826 without proof is
also described there and proved there. Here we will restrict ourselves to the exposition of
the thoroughly simple solution published by Schellbach in volume 45 of Crelles Journal.
Let dABC be the given triangle with sides a, b, c, perimeter 2s. Let the Malfatti circles we
are looking for be C P , C Q , C R with centers P, Q, R and radii p, q, r respectively. Let the
tangents from A, B, C to the circles C P , C Q , C R be u, v, w.
C
w
w
CR
R

CP
P
u
A

F
q=QV

p
u

v
CQ
v

Figure 2
Consider the incircle C I of dABC with center I and radius >. Let a 1 , b 1 , c 1 be the
tangents from A, B, C to the points of tangency:

C
c1
c1

b1

CI

a1

a1

b1

Figure 3
Then
b 1  c 1  a,

c 1  a 1  b,

a 1  b 1  c,

and (since s  a 1  b 1  c 1  a 1  a  b 1  b  c 1  c)
a 1  s " a,

b 1  s " b,

c 1  s " c.

Furthermore the square of the area is ss " a s " b s " c  sa 1 b 1 c 1 by Herons formula, but
also >s 2 , and so > 2  a 1 bs1 c 1 .
Both centers I and P lie on the angle bisector of 0CAB, so by similar triangles, we
conclude that
p

u
>  a1
Similarly q 

>
b1

or

>

p  a 1 u.

v.

Refer to Figure 2 above. U and V are points of tangency for C P and C Q with AB, and
UV  t. PF QV and dPQF is a right triangle. Thus
PQ 2  PF 2  FQ 2 or

p  q 2

 t 2  p " q 2

and on expanding and solving for t, we get


UV  t  2 pq .
Using the values for p and q found above, this becomes

t  2 uv
But > 2  a 1 bs1 c 1 , and so we get UV  t  2
the three segments AU, UV, VB, we get

c1
s

>2
a1b1

uv . Since side AB of dABC is composed of

u  v  2 cs1

uv  c.

v  w  2 as1

vw  a

w  u  2 bs1

wu  b.

In the same way

and

Scale dABC if necessary so that s  1. then we have the system of equations

(1)

v  w  2 a 1 vw

 a,

w  u  2 b 1 wu

 b,

u  v  2 c 1 uv

 c.

Since b  c  a, it follows that a  b  c  2a and 1  a, since s  1. Similary


0  b, c  1. Then of course 0  u, v, w  1, and there are six (unique) acute angles
5, 6, A, E, I, D such that
sin 2 5  a,

sin 2 6  b, sin 2 A  c,

sin 2 E  u, sin 2 I  v, sin 2 D  w.


Since 1  a  a 1  b  b 1  c  c 1 , cos 2 5  a 1 , cos 2 6  b 1 , cos 2 A  c 1 , and (1) takes the form:
sin 2 I  sin 2 D  2 sin I sin D cos 5  sin 2 5,
(2)

sin 2 D  sin 2 E  2 sin D sin E cos 6  sin 2 6,


sin 2 E  sin 2 I  2 sin E sin I cos A  sin 2 A.

Recall the generalized law of sines sina )  sinb *  sinc +  2R, where R is the radius of the
circumcircle. If R  12 , then a  sin ), b  sin * and c  sin + :


sin

sin

sin

R=

1
2

Then sin 2 +  sin 2 )  sin 2 * " 2 sin ) sin * cos + by the law of cosines, or
sin 2 + U  sin 2 )  sin 2 *  2 sin ) sin * cos + U where + U  180 ( " +  )  *. The converse is also
true for acute angle ), *, + U , i.e. if sin 2 + U  sin 2 )  sin 2 *  2 sin ) sin * cos + U , then + U  )  *.
Thus (2) becomesI  D  5, D  E  6, D  I  A and from this

E  @ " 5,

I  @ " 6,

D  @"A

with

@

56A
2

The steps in the argument are reversible and lead to PQ  p  q, so the circles constructed
from 5, 6, A, E, I, D are the Malfatti circles of dABC.
We have the following construction for u, v and w, the tangents to the Malfatti circles from
the vertices, assuming that s  1 :
1. Construct 5, 6, A so that sin 2 5  a, sin 2 6  b and sin 2 A  c. (See Note 1 below.)
56A
2. Construct @  2 , and then E  @ " 5, I  @ " 6, D  @ " A.
3. Construct sin 2 E  u, sin 2 I  v, and sin 2 D  w. (See Note 1 below.)

Note 1. How to construct


1.
2.

w such that sin 2 w  m, given m,


m  sin 2 w given w.

Consider the following figure of a semicircle with diameter HK  1 :

w
H

HK=1

m  HM  HL sin 0HLM  HL sin w and HL  HK sin w  sin w, so m  sin 2 w.


Note 2. Malfatti (and others) thought that this was the way to inscribe three circles with
maximal area in a triangle. (Malfatti was trying to solve the problem of cutting three
circular columns of largest volume from a triangular block of marble.) Malfatti circles
do not always give the maximal area, e.g.

Malfatti area = 4.44 cm2

Area = 7.06 cm2

Note 3. Its a good exercise to use some sort of geometry software to build a tool to
construct the Malfatti circles for a triangle.