The Catenary Curve – On the way to the Calculus of Variations

In the beginning of the last decade of the 17th century, Jacob Bernoulli proposed the problem of the catenary; in 1696, Johann Bernoulli proposed the problem of the brachistochrone; some years later, Daniel Bernoulli would suggest to Euler the right functional to solve the elastica problem. The Bernoulli’s family had a great influence in the development of the Calculus of Variations, which was formalized by Euler in his book of 1744. Here the catenary problem and its solution are described in detail.

Definition and first model.

In 1690, Jacob Bernoulli stated the following problem:

Assume you have a perfectly elastic wire (it can be deformed by the action of some force, but its shape is recovered immediately after the forces are ceased) made of a material with uniform density \lambda.  The two extremities of the wire are attached at the top of two columns of the same height. Moreover, assume that the only forces acting on the wire are tension and gravity. What is the equation described by the wire?

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