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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

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

u v 2 cs1

uv c.

v w 2 as1

vw a

w u 2 bs1

wu b.

and

(1)

v w 2 a 1 vw

a,

w u 2 b 1 wu

b,

u v 2 c 1 uv

c.

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,

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 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.)

1.

2.

m sin 2 w given w.

w

H

HK=1

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.

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.

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