Problem: A piece of sheet tin three feet square is to be made into a rectangular box open at the top by cutting out equal squares from the corners and bending up the sides of the resulting piece parallel with the edges. Among all such boxes, to find the box of greatest volume.
This is the problem J. L. Walsh used in his 1947 Classroom Note in The American Mathematical Monthly
to illustrate a rigorous analysis of maximum-minimum problems. A version of the problem appears in many calculus books and in Walsh’s 1962 booklet.
Let the tin sheet have dimensions
, and suppose a square with side
is cut from each corner. The volume of the resulting box is
Walsh’s rigorous analysis uses the extreme value theorem: A continuous function on a closed bounded interval has minimum and maximum values, and the critical point theorem: If a function has an extreme value at an interior point of an interval, its derivative at the point is either zero or does not exist. A proof of the extreme value theorem is best left to an advanced calculus course, but the critical point theorem depends only on the definition of derivative. An extreme value cannot occur where
is continuous on
, it has a maximum value there, by the extreme value theorem.
Let the maximum occur at
, we have
, the critical point theorem implies
, the box has maximum volume when
Calculations are easiest and the biggest box is easiest to make when
are integers and
is rational. These are the triples
with this property, where
are relatively prime:
This Demonstration lets you choose one of these triples and an integer multiplier. For example, choosing the first triple and multiplier 3 gives
, the case in the stated problem. It is somewhat surprising how shallow the biggest box is.