Watt's curve

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See the construction of Watt's curve (in black).

In mathematics, Watt's curve is a tricircular plane algebraic curve of degree six. It is generated by two circles of radius b with centers distance 2a apart (taken to be at (±a, 0). A line segment of length 2c attaches to a point on each of the circles, and the midpoint of the line segment traces out the Watt curve as the circles rotate. It arose in connection with James Watt's pioneering work on the steam engine.

The equation of the curve can be given in polar coordinates as



Polar coordinates[edit]

The polar equation for the curve can be derived as follows:[1] Working in the complex plane, let the centers of the circles be at a and −a, and the connecting segment have endpoints at −a+bei λ and a+bei ρ. Let the angle of inclination of the segment be ψ with its midpoint at rei θ. Then the endpoints are also given by rei θ ± cei ψ. Setting expressions for the same points equal to each other gives


Add these and divide by two to get


Comparing radii and arguments gives

r=b\cos\alpha,\ \theta=\tfrac{\rho+\lambda}{2}\ \mbox{where}\ \alpha=\tfrac{\rho-\lambda}{2}.

Similarly, subtracting the first two equations and dividing by 2 gives

ce^{i\psi}-a=\tfrac{b}{2}(e^{i\rho}-e^{i\lambda})=i b\sin\alpha e^{i\theta}.


a=a\cos\theta\ e^{i\theta} - i a\sin\theta\ e^{i\theta}.\,


ce^{i\psi}=i b\sin\alpha e^{i\theta}+a\cos\theta\ e^{i\theta} - i a\sin\theta\ e^{i\theta}=(a\cos\theta\ +i(b\sin\alpha-a\sin\theta))e^{i\theta},

Cartesian coordinates[edit]

Expanding the polar equation gives

r^2=b^2-(a^2\sin^2\theta\ + c^2-a^2\cos^2\theta \pm 2a\sin\theta\sqrt{c^2-a^2\cos^2\theta}),\,
r^2-a^2-b^2+c^2+2a^2\sin^2\theta=\pm 2a\sin\theta\sqrt{c^2-a^2\cos^2\theta}),\,

Letting d 2=a2+b2c2 simplifies this to


Form of the curve[edit]

The construction requires a quadrilateral with sides 2a, b, 2c, b. Any side must be less than the sum of the remaining sides, so the curve is empty (at least in the real plane) unless a<b+c and c<b+a.

The has a crossing point at the origin if there is a triangle with sides a, b and c. Given the previous conditions, this means that the curve crosses the origin if and only if b<a+c. If b=a+c then two branches of the curve meet at the origin with a common vertical tangent, making it a quadruple point.

Given b<a+c, the shape of the curve is determined by the relative magnitude of b and d. If d is imaginary, that is if a2+b2 <c2 then the curve has the form of a figure eight. If d is 0 then the curve is a figure eight with two branches of the curve having a common horizontal tangent at the origin. If 0<d<b then the curve has two additional double points at ±d and the curve crosses itself at these points. The overall shape of the curve is pretzel-like in this case. If d=b then a=c and the curve decomposes into a circle of radius b and a lemniscate of Booth, a figure eight shaped curve. A special case of this is a=c, b=√2c which produces the lemniscate of Bernoulli. Finally, if d>b then the points ±d are still solutions to the Cartesian equation of the curve, but the curve does not cross these points and they are acnodes. The curve again has a figure eight shape though the shape is distorted if d is close to b.

Given b>a+c, the shape of the curve is determined by the relative sizes of a and c. If a<c then the curve has the form of two loops that cross each other at ±d. If a=c then the curve decomposes into a circle of radius b and an oval of Booth. If a>c then the curve does not cross the x-axis at all and consists of two flattened ovals.[2]

Watt's linkage[edit]

Watts linkage.gif
Main article: Watt's linkage

When the curve crosses the origin, the origin is a point of inflection and therefore has contact of order 3 with a tangent. However, if a2=b2+<c2 [clarification needed] then tangent has contact of order 5 with the tangent, in other words the curve is a close approximation of a straight line. This is the basis for Watt's linkage.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Catalan and Rutter
  2. ^ Encyclopédie des Formes Mathématiques Remarquables page for section.

External links[edit]