An stone arch is a structure that spans a space and supports a load. Arches appeared as early as the 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamian brick architecture  and their systematic use started with the Ancient Romans who were the first to apply the techniqueto a wide range of structures.
The stone arch is significant because, in theory at least, it provides a structure which eliminates tensile stresses in spanning a great amount of open space. All the forces are resolved into compressive stresses. This is useful because several of the available building materials such as stone, cast iron and concrete can strongly resist compression but are very weak when tension, shear or torsional stress is applied to them. By using the arch configuration, significant spans can be achieved. This is because all the compressive forces hold it together in a state of equilibrium. This even applies to frictionless surfaces. However, one downside is that an arch pushes outward at the base, and this needs to be restrained in some way, either with heavy sides and friction or angled cuts into bedrock or similar.
Even when using concrete, where the structure may be monolithic, the principle of the arch is used so as to benefit from the concrete’s strength in resisting compressive stress. Where any other form of stress is raised, it has to be resisted by carefully placed reinforcement rods or fibres. (See Arch bridge.)
The Romans were the first builders in Europe, perhaps the first in the world, fully to appreciate the advantages of the arch, the vault and the dome.
Throughout the Roman empire, their engineers erected arch structures such as bridges, aqueducts, and gates. They also introduced the triumphal arch as a military monument. Vaults began to be used for roofing large interior spaces such as halls and temples, a function which was also assumed by domed structures from the 1st century BC onwards.
The segmental arch was first built by the Romans who realized that an arch in a bridge did not have to be a semicircle, such as in Alconétar Bridge or Ponte San Lorenzo. They were also routinely used in house construction as in Ostia Antica (see picture).
The semicircular arch was followed in Europe by the pointed Gothic arch or ogive whose centreline more closely followed the forces of compression and which was therefore stronger. The semicircular arch can be flattened to make an elliptical arch as in the Ponte Santa Trinita. Both the parabolic and the catenary arches are now known to be the theoretically strongest forms. Parabolic arches were introduced in construction by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, who admired the structural system of Gothic style, but for the buttresses, which he termed “architectural crutches”. The catenary and parabolic arches carry all horizontal thrust to the foundation and so do not need additional elements.
The horseshoe arch is based on the semicircular arch, but its lower ends are extended further round the circle until they start to converge. The first known built horseshoe arches are known from Aksum (modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea) from around the 3rd–4th century, around the same time as the earliest contemporary examples in Roman Syria, suggesting either an Aksumite or Syrian origin for the type of arch.
The gallery shows arch forms displayed in roughly the order in which they were developed.