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A Compass and a Straight Edge:

The History of Geometric Constructions

By: Greg Funk

History of Math

Professors:

Dr. Adam Harbaugh,

Ms. Jennifer McCarthy


Abstract
This paper discusses geometric constructions starting with ancient geometers such as

Euclid, Antiphon, Hippocrates, and many others. Euclid will be discussed first, and the most,

because of all he brought to constructions. First with his three postulates, which became the laws

of construction, and secondly with all the many constructions which he himself created. Also the

problems of antiquity will be discussed in great depth along with the ways in which the methods

of construction have changed over time. The paper will then delve in to some simple

constructions. A few that will be discussed are bisecting an angle, constructing perpendicular

bisectors, and constructing a line parallel to a given line. These simple constructions can be used

to construct more difficult geometric figures. That will be what is discussed in the final section

of this writing the construction of more difficult figures. Some of the figures discussed include

the pentagram, and the golden triangle.


Introduction

A geometric construction is the construction of a line, angle or any other geometric

figure. These constructions normally use only a compass and a straight edge, although over time

some other methods have come in to use. One method which will be used throughout this report

is Geometers Sketch Pad which is a computer software system which can be used to make

constructions. In this study the author will create many constructions some of which are quite

simple. The simple constructions will lead to more difficult ones. The constructions will have

step by step instructions. However, all of the constructions will come later to begin with the

paper will discuss the history of these constructions back as far as the Greeks. The history

begins with the great geometer Euclid.

History

Geometric constructions have been used for many years however one of the first men to

work with them to a great extent was Euclid. He created postulates which have long been

interpreted as the rules of constructing. A summation of the three postulates is as follows: a

straight line may be drawn from any point to any other point, a continuous line can be

represented, and a circle with any center and distance may be described (Coolidge, 1963). These

rules basically allowed for a mathematician to use a straight edge of indefinite length and a

compass which was capable of opening indefinitely as well. These postulates obviously created

some problems as it seemed nearly impossible to use only those tools to create all figures. In

Euclid’s time he and others were able to do many constructions including: constructing an

equilateral triangle, a perpendicular line to a given line, and a midpoint of a line segment.
Throughout history, mathematicians were able to construct almost all geometric figures

following the postulates laid down by Euclid.

The three problems which were most well known for not being able to be solved by

Euclidean’s way were the Problems of Antiquity. The three problems were trisecting an angle,

doubling a cube, and squaring a circle. These problems were unsolvable for over two thousand

years with the use of a compass and a straight edge alone (Weisstein, 2009). Trisecting an angle,

was the first problem of antiquity and many mathematicians including Hippias, Archimedes, and

Nicomedes worked to find a way to create a construction method which worked on all angles

(Jackter, 2000). This problem was unfortunately not plane (able to be constructed using a

straight edge and a compass), it just so happened to be a solid construction which needed conics

to be solved. This was proven because if an equation is irreducible then it has no roots which

can be represented as rational functions. If the previous is the case then the equation cannot be

solved by a finite number of square roots and in turn is insolvable with a straight edge and a

compass alone (Klein, 1956).

The second problem of antiquity is squaring a circle which was a daunting task in ancient

times by common Euclidean methods. The first mathematician recorded as trying this problem

was Anaxagoras. He was followed by many others through history including Oenopides,

Antiphon, Bryson, Hippocrates, and Hippias(O'Connor, Robertson, 1999). Many attempts at the

squaring of a circle lead to lots of expansion in geometry. In their attempts Antiphon and Bryson

created two very important processes of geometry. Antiphon worked with inscribing polygons in

a circle starting with a square as he attempted to solve the problem. Bryson worked with the

inscribing and also another very similar process as he circumscribed polygons about circles.
After many years, this problem was proven to be insolvable in the plane method and required a

solid construction. The first man to be on the right path to proving it insolvable was James

Gregory. His proof dealt with the fact that π was a transcendental number and there for would

not work with a rational polynomial equation. This proof became much sounder when Lambert

proved π to be irrational. The proof was finalized in 1880 when Lindemann proved π to be

transcendental.

The final problem of antiquity is doubling a cube, or the Delian Problem. The problem

was to double the volume of a cube, given the side length of the original cube. This problem

appears in a Greek tale where the people of Athens asked the Oracle how to end the horrible

plague, and he told them to double the size of Apollo’s altar. They doubled all the lengths which

lead to an altar which was over the requested. This is the first recording of this problem in

history being attempted (Weisstein, 2009). Just as the other problems of antiquity, doubling a

cube was proven impossible under the given restrictions many years later. The problem cannot

be done with the restrictions because , which is the ratio of the original side length to the

object trying to be constructed, is not a Euclidean number. The first proof of this problem came

from Descartes in 1637.

Although the construction rules have remained unchanging over time from Euclid’s

original three postulates; the tools have in some ways changed through time. This is a point of

much controversy. All of the changes are ambiguous. In the days of Euclid, the compass which

would be used would have been spring loaded and closed automatically when picked up off the

sheet of paper. But through time, compasses became more like the stiff, settable compasses

which mathematicians and students alike recognize today. Some people feel like changing the
functionality of the compass changes things which can be done with constructions. It is true that

changing the compass changes the capabilities of the mathematician; however the new stiffer

compasses can be very useful others argue and make constructing more time efficient.

Beyond the very minor changes made to the compass is a very significant one which has

begun to be used only over the past few years. This is the use of computer software to create

geometric constructions. That is the method which will be seen in the constructions in the latter

part of this paper. A few examples of this software are GeoGebra, and Geometers Sketchpad,

which are the programs used to create the drawings for this paper. However there are many

different available programs capable of creating these drawings. In the following section the

reader will be able to view some of the creations which this software has made.

Simple Constructions

This section will discuss several simple constructions that are the basis of all

constructions. These constructions include: bisecting an angle, constructing congruent angles

and lines, constructing a perpendicular line through a point, a parallel line through a point, and

constructing a perpendicular bisector. Now here is the first of the simple constructions, the angle

bisector.

Fig. 1 Angle Bisector


Bisecting an angle is a very important construction which becomes very useful in more

difficult multi-step constructions. One example of the use of this construction is above in Figure

1. In the Construction angle ABC is given and the goal is a simple bisection. First a compass, or

in the case of this example a circle maker on Geometers Sketchpad, is used to make a circle with

a center at vertex B and a radius of AB. Then another circle is made with the center point at A

and a radius of AD. The same process is used again but with the center at D instead of A. The

intersection of the last two circles created is point E. The last step is to draw a ray starting at

point B and going through point E. Ray BE is the angle bisector of angle ABC.

Fig.2 Congruent Lines

Constructing congruent might seem easy with a ruler. Yet these constructions are done

with a straight edge and a compass. That rule makes it slightly more difficult. Figure 2 above is

an example in which line segment DE is given. To start the construction you must draw a line

and label one point on it in this case G. You can then draw a circle with G as the center point

and DE as the radius. Where your circle intersects your created line is then labeled point H.

Line segment GH is now congruent to the given Line segment DE.


Fig. 3 Congruent Angles

Creating congruent angles can be helpful to the creation of many regular polygons. This

is because of the fact that all regular polygons have all congruent angles and sides. As in the

construction in Figure 3 above you can create a congruent angle when given one angle in this

case angle ABC. The first step is to draw a circle which a center at point B and a radius of AB.

The intersection of that circle with line BC creates a new point which is labeled above as D.

Then line segment AD is drawn in. At this point the constructor would begin to create the

congruent angle. This process is begun by drawing a ray with a vertex of Y. Then you must

construct a circle with a center at Y and a radius of AB. Where that circle intersects the ray is

then labeled Z. You then create a circle with a center at Z and a radius of AD. Where the two

circles intersect is labeled point X. A line is the drawn from Y through X. The created angle

XYZ is congruent to angle ABC.


Fig. 4 Equilateral Triangle

An equilateral triangle is the easiest regular polygon to create seeing as it has the least

number of sides of any polygon. Not only is it a very simple polygon construction it is also one

of the easier constructions over all. When given line segment FD as in Figure 4 above

construction you create one circle with a center at F and a diameter of FD. The same thing is then

done again with D as the center and the same radius. You then make point E at the intersection of

the two circles above line segment FD. Then you connect the three points and have created

equilateral triangle DEF.

Fig. 5 Perpendicular Line through point


Perpendicular lines are created by the construction in Figure 5. In geometry being able to

create a perpendicular line can be very useful in the construction of many other objects. In

Figure 5 is one example of how to draw a perpendicular line through a specific point on a line.

In the example the given point is J. To start off you draw a circle with a center at point J and a

radius of E which is a point on the line AJ. The other point which the created circle intersects

line AJ is then labeled D. Then a circle is drawn with a center E and radius ED and another with

a center D and the same radius. Then the points at which the two circles intersect are connected

and the newly created line is the perpendicular line.

Fig. 6 Perpendicular Bisector

A perpendicular bisectors is obvious by the name is very similar to the construction of a

perpendicular line through a point. It also serves a very similar purpose in constructions as the

other construction. However it can be very useful for constructing the midpoint of a line

segment. That midpoint can serve many purposes such as creating a circle with a known

diameter, but an unknown center. All that is done for this construction is a circle which is

constructed with a center of A and a radius of AB and another circle with a center B and the

same radius. Then the two points where the circles intersect are connected forming the

perpendicular bisector.
Fig. 7 Parallel Lines

Constructing parallel lines is one of the more difficult of the simple constructions which

are represented in this paper. For the construction in Figure 7, line AB and point C are given.

To begin you must draw line AC. Then a circle with a center of A and radius AB must be

constructed. The point where that newly constructed circle intersects line AC is given the name

point D. Then Line DB is constructed by connecting the points. Then you move down to point

C and construct a circle with radius AB around it. The point at which this circle intersects line

AC which is not between A and C is point E. Then a circle is drawn with a center at E and a

radius DB. The intersection of the last two circles drawn is point F. A line is then drawn

through CF. Line CF is parallel to line AB.


Challenging Constructions
As with all things constructions range from really simplistic as shown above to very

difficult as you will see in this section. The challenging constructions include circumscribing

and inscribing a circle, constructing a golden triangle and the golden rectangles diagonal, not to

mention the construction of a pentagram.

Fig. 8 Pentagram

Figure 8 is a construction of a pentagram although if the same steps are followed a

pentagon may also be constructed. To start this construction you draw a circle in which the

pentagram will be constructed. The center point of this circle is point 0. Then a random point on

the circle is selected as A, this point will be the first vertex of your pentagram. A line is then

drawn which passes through O and A. The next step is to construct a line through point O that is

perpendicular to Line OA. The point where the newly constructed line intersects the circle is then
labeled B. The next step would be to find the midpoint of line segment OB. This point would be

labeled C. To find that midpoint in the above construction the mathematician created a

perpendicular bisector. Then using that point, C a circle would be constructed with a radius of

CA. Where this circle intersects OB within the original circle is labeled point D. Then another

circle is constructed with a center at A, and a radius of AD. The two points in which this circle

intersects the original circle are labeled E and F, and are the next two vertices of the pentagram.

Then another circle is constructed with a center at point C and a radius of CA. Its intersection

with the original circle is labeled G. The same thing is done again with the center at F rather

than E. The intersection this circle creates is labeled H. At this point to create a pentagon you

just connect point AEGHF. However to construct the pentagram you connect every other point

together until all the points are a connected.

Fig. 9 Golden Triangle

When you begin with one golden triangle you can create an infinite number of them with

only one simple construction. That construction is the angle bisector construction. The
instructions for the angle bisector construction, once again can be found in Figure 1. To

complete this construction you simply start at one angle and go around and around constructing

angle bisectors. If you had an infinite amount of time, and infinitely sharp lead you could

continue this method for ever seeing as there is an infinite number of golden triangles.

Fig. 10 Golden Rectangle

To construct the diagonal of the golden rectangle all that must be done is find the

midpoints of line AB and line CB. This can be done with the use of perpendicular bisectors.

Then with the midpoints as the centers and the radii as the midpoint to one of the corners you

construct two circles. The intersection of these two circles is then marked. To create the

diagonal all that must be done is connect that point to points A, B, and C.
Fig. 11 Inscribe circle in a triangle

Inscribing a circle within a triangle is a more difficult construction however it can be

broken down to make it simpler as in Figure 11. The first step that was done in Figure 11 was to

find two of the triangles angle bisectors. See Figure 1 for help with finding bisectors. Then the

point which was created by the intersection of the bisectors is selected and an altitude of that

point is found. This step is simply done by constructing a perpendicular line through a point. To

be refreshed on how to complete this step view Figure 5. Then the point in the triangle is used as

the center of the circle and the radius is that center point to the point of the altitudes intersection

with the base. That circle which is created is inscribed within the given triangle.
Fig. 12 Circumscribe a circle about a Triangle

Circumscribing a circle about a triangle focuses in the use of perpendicular bisectors. To

review the method of constructing a perpendicular bisector return to Figure 6. In Figure twelve

you find all the perpendicular bisectors point of intersection. Then with this point as the center

and a radius that extends to any of the vertices of the triangle you can construct a circle which is

circumscribed about the given triangle.

Conclusion
All the constructions which were presented in the above work are similar to those which

would have been done in the times of the great Greek geometers. Construction is not only

mathematical but it is also an art in the way which it is done. The mathematicians of ancient

times new construction inside and out when following Euclid’s rules. As apparent in the

problems of antiquity, those mathematicians could not solve all things as it took thousands of

years to complete those questions although the rules of Euclid were broken to do so. Although

the limits of Euclidean plane constructions have mostly been reached the field of construction is

far from gone. With all the new digital tools available which can be much more precise,

geometric constructions seem limitless.


References
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Inc..
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17, 2009, from Rutgers Math Web site: http://www.math.rutgers.edu/courses/436/436-
s00/Papers2000/jackter.html
Klein, F. (1956). Famous Problems of Elementary Geometry. N.Y., N.Y.: Dover
Publications Inc..
Lamphier, L. (2004).Geometric Constructions. 49.
Miller, N. (2007). Euclid and his twentieth century rivals: Diagrams in the logic of
euclidean geometry. Stanford, C.A.: CSLI Publications.
Weisstein, E. W. (1999-2009). Cube Duplication. Retrieved July 16, 2009, from
Mathworld Web site: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/CubeDuplication.html
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2009, from Mathworld Web site:
http://mathworld.wolfram.com/GeometricProblemsofAntiquity.html