Chord (geometry)

A chord of a circle is a straight line segment whose endpoints both lie on a circular arc. The infinite line extension of a chord is a secant line, or just secant. More generally, a chord is a line segment joining two points on any curve, for instance, an ellipse. A chord that passes through a circle's center point is the circle's diameter. The word chord is from the Latin chorda meaning bowstring.

The midpoints of a set of parallel chords of an ellipse are collinear.[1]

Chords were used extensively in the early development of trigonometry. The first known trigonometric table, compiled by Hipparchus, tabulated the value of the chord function for every 7+1/2 degrees. In the second century AD, Ptolemy of Alexandria compiled a more extensive table of chords in his book on astronomy, giving the value of the chord for angles ranging from 1/2 to 180 degrees by increments of 1/2 degree. The circle was of diameter 120, and the chord lengths are accurate to two base-60 digits after the integer part.[2]

The chord function is defined geometrically as shown in the picture. The chord of an angle is the length of the chord between two points on a unit circle separated by that central angle. The angle θ is taken in the positive sense and must lie in the interval 0 < θπ (radian measure). The chord function can be related to the modern sine function, by taking one of the points to be (1,0), and the other point to be (cos θ, sin θ), and then using the Pythagorean theorem to calculate the chord length:[2]

The last step uses the half-angle formula. Much as modern trigonometry is built on the sine function, ancient trigonometry was built on the chord function. Hipparchus is purported to have written a twelve-volume work on chords, all now lost, so presumably a great deal was known about them. In the table below (where c is the chord length, and D the diameter of the circle) the chord function can be shown to satisfy many identities analogous to well-known modern ones: