A chord (from the Latin chorda, meaning "bowstring") of a circle is a straight line segment whose endpoints both lie on a circular arc. If a chord were to be extended infinitely on both directions into a line, the object is a secant line. The perpendicular line passing through the chord's midpoint is called sagitta (Latin for "arrow").
More generally, a chord is a line segment joining two points on any curve, for instance, on an ellipse. A chord that passes through a circle's center point is the circle's diameter.
Among properties of chords of a circle are the following:
The midpoints of a set of parallel chords of a conic are collinear (midpoint theorem for conics).^{[1]}
Chords were used extensively in the early development of trigonometry. The first known trigonometric table, compiled by Hipparchus in the 2nd century BC, is no longer extant but tabulated the value of the chord function for every 7+1/2 degrees. In the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy 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. Ptolemy used a circle of diameter 120, and gave chord lengths accurate to two sexagesimal (base sixty) 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 < θ ≤ π (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:
Name | Sine-based | Chord-based |
---|---|---|
Pythagorean | ||
Half-angle | ||
Apothem (a) | ||
Angle (θ) |
The inverse function exists as well:^{[4]}