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© 19922008 by Glenn Elert
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28 June 1994
Although certainly not the first trigonometric table^{1}, Ptolemy's On the Size of Chords Inscribed in a Circle (2nd Century AD) is by far the most famous. Based largely on an earlier work by Hipparchus (ca. 140 BC) it was included in Ptolemy's definitive Syntaxis Mathematica, better known by its Arabic name Almagest^{2}. In this paper I will describe the geometric theorems used in the construction of this table and attempt to relate them to their contemporary trigonometric counterparts.
Given a circle whose diameter and circumference are divided into 120 and 360 parts respectively, Ptolemy was able to calculate the corresponding chord length for every central angle up to 180° in halfdegree intervals. Given, in the diagram to the right that
(where crd is the length of the chord described by the central angle subtending an arc of parts of the circumference), the Table of Chords as compiled by Ptolemy is equivalent to a table of sines for every angle up to 90° in quarter degree intervals.
Ptolemy began his discourse by calculating the chord lengths for the central angles corresponding to the sides of a regular inscribed decagon, hexagon, pentagon, square, and triangle. He determined the first three of these chords using the figure below with the following proof^{3}.
Using these results, Ptolemy then calculated the chord lengths for the central angles.
DF is the side of a decagon thus crd 36° = 37°4'55" 
BF is the side of a pentagon thus crd 72° = 70°32'3" (this was reported as 70°32'4" in the Table of Chords) 
DC is the side of a hexagon thus crd 60° = 60° 
Table 1 Chords of the special angles 

angle  crd  
36°  37°  4'  55" 
60°  60°  
72°  70°  32'  3" 
90°  84°  51'  10" 
108°  97°  4'  56" 
120°  103°  55'  23" 
144°  114°  7'  37" 
180°  120°  000°  000° 
Likewise since the square of the side of an inscribed square is twice the square of the radius and the square of the side of an inscribed equilateral triangle is three times the square of the radius, we get
Given these angles, Ptolemy then showed how it was possible to derive other chord lengths using the fact that the inscribed angle that subtends the diameter of a circle is 90°. Therefore, by application of Pythagoras theorem,
^{4}
The chords of the special angles are summarized in Table 1 to the right. For the remaining chords we need to create new mathematical tools.
In a cyclic quadrilateral the product of the diagonals is equal to the sum of the products of the pairs of opposite sides.
With this theorem, Ptolemy produced three corollaries from which more chord lengths could be calculated: the chord of the difference of two arcs, the chord of half of an arc, and the chord of the sum of two arcs. I will now present these corollaries and the subsequent proofs given by Ptolemy. I will also derive a formula from each corollary that can be used to calculate the additional chords. (Ptolemy did not supply any formulae.) Furthermore, I will show that the three corollaries are equivalent to the trigonometric identities for the sine of the difference of two angles, the sine of half an angle, and the sine of the sum of two angles respectively.
By successive application of this theorem to the chords summarized in Table 1, it is possible to calculate all the chord lengths for the angles between 6° and 180° in 6° intervals. Thus
These values are within 1" of those found in the Table of Chords. When there is a discrepancy, it is usually due to rounding errors. It appears that either Ptolemy's computers (persons hired to do the menial calculations) did not carry their work out beyond the seconds place or they did not believe in rounding up ever. This was true for many of the values I calculated.
This theorem makes it possible to calculate chords in ever smaller increments. Thus
By successive application of this theorem to the chords found with the first two corollaries it is possible to calculate all the chord lengths for the angles between 0° and 180° in 1½° increments. Thus
Again these values are within 1" of those calculated by Ptolemy.
With things as they stand now, we still cannot calculate the chords for twothirds of the values in our intended table. However, if we knew the values of crd ½° and crd 1° we could then apply corollary 3 repeatedly to the chords already known and finish the table. If the trisection of an angle were geometrically possible, we could use crd 1½° to find crd ½° algebraically and then apply corollary 2 to find crd 1°. Given the wellknown impossibility of this trisection, Ptolemy decided instead to approximate the value of crd 1° by means of "a little lemma which, even if it may not suffice for determining chords in general, can yet in the case of very small ones, keep them indistinguishable from chords rigorously determined" (Ptolemy 28). This lemma, attributed to Aristarchus, appears with its proof below.
Ptolemy carried his work out further by dividing the interval between successive chords into thirtieths. This effectively allows for the calculation of any chord between 0° and 180° in one second intervals. While not rigorously produced, the values of the sixtieths are, in Ptolemy's words, "accurate as far as the sense are concerned" (Ptolemy 32).
A section of the Table of Chords is shown in Table 2 below.
A random sample of sines produced from the Table of Chords were compared with those generated by a pocket calculator accurate to ten places. The results are summarized in Table 3 below.
As the table shows, Ptolemy's results agree with the "exact" values to five or six decimal places. The unusually high deviation of crd 110½° is probably due to a typographical error.
The remainder of the Almagest consists of astronomical calculations: the position of the sun, moon, and planets at various times relative to the fixed stars. The Table of Chords played an important role in their compilation.
Hipparchus' earlier 12book treatise on the construction of a table of chords disappeared sometime after the fourthcentury because it was superseded by the far more comprehensive Almagest. The Almagest reigned supreme as the treatise in practical trigonometry for approximately onethousand years. During the tenthcentury, the Islamic mathematician Abû'lWefâ computed the values for the sines and tangents of an angle in quarterdegree intervals and essentially reproduced the Table of Chords in contemporary form. In the sixteenthcentury, the Teutonic mathematician George Joachim Rhaeticus had, over the course of twelve years and with the help of hired computers, calculated the values of all six trigonometric functions to ten places and the sine function to fifteen places in ten second intervals. With the ubiquity of programmable calculators and personal computers, computational ability has advanced to the point where it is within the economic means of large segments of the earth's population to reproduce the life work of the ancients on demand. Technology has rendered the work of such mathematicians superfluous in much the same way the Almagest obliterated all twelve volumes of Hipparchus.
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