Faculty Publications

A Fresh Look At The Catenary

Document Type



catenary, catenary equation, hanging chain

Journal/Book/Conference Title

European Journal of Physics






A hanging chain takes the familiar form known as the catenary which is one of the most ubiquitous curves students encounter in their daily life. Yet most introductory physics and mathematics texts ignore the subject entirely. In more advanced texts the catenary equation is usually derived as an application of the calculus of variations. Although the variational approach is mathematically elegant, it is suitable for more advanced students. Here we derive the catenary equation in special and rectangular coordinates by considering the equilibrium conditions for an element of the hanging chain and without resorting to the calculus of variations. One advantage of this approach is its simplicity which makes it accessible to undergraduate students; another is the concurrent derivation of a companion equation which gives the tension along the chain. These solutions provide an excellent opportunity for undergraduates to explore the underlying physics. One interesting result is that the shape of a hanging chain does not depend on its linear mass density or on the strength of the gravitational field. Therefore, within a scale factor, all catenaries are copies of the same universal curve. We give the functional dependence of the scale factor on the length and terminal angle of the hanging chain.


Department of Physics

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DOI of published version