WILBUR AND ORVILLE A Biography of the Wright Brothers By Fred Howard Knopf. 530 pp. $24.95

DREAMERS, CHARLATANS and cranks; gliders, gas bags and kites. It is the year 1903 and no one has yet invented a machine capable of powered, sustained and controlled flight. Everywhere enthusiasts toil to perfect one. Their efforts are closely watched by the army general staffs of the great powers. Then, an incredible event. A pair of obscure bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio, build such a machine and hardly anyone pays attention!

Fred Howard's brilliant and exciting history of the Wright brothers' climb to fame reads almost like a novel. The characters crowding its pages seem to step out of Mark Twain, or even Eric Ambler. International arms merchants, mountebanks, patent lawyers and bankers rub shoulders with daredevil young pilots, midwestern hicks, Outer Banks fishermen and obsessed tinkers. A venerable scientific body -- the Smithsonian Institution -- engages in a cover-up. Another inventor, Glenn Curtiss, emerges as a rival, and the resulting feud leaves "a sordid trail of hatred, invective, and lies that muddy the pages of aeronautical history to this day." Above these squabbles and personalities, the three Wright Flyers, as the first machines built from 1903 to 1905 were called, flutter across the skies into the future.

It's as dramatic a story as exists in the entire history of science and technology, and Howard spares no detail to make the telling good. To start with, he's especially good at explaining the physics of flight. The secret of the Wrights' success was their commonsensical adherence to scientific method. Hundreds of experiments with kites and gliders preceded the famous brief Kitty Hawk powered flights of December 17, 1903. A homemade wind tunnel powered by a bicycle enabled them to test wing and propeller shapes. The final tests with gliders resulted in a fragile aircraft in which the pilot had the rudiments of three-axis control -- that is, he had the ability to master pitch, yaw and roll, not by thrashing about himself, but by manipulating rudder and wings in order to ascend, descend, turn and circle. "After . . . years of experimenting," says Howard, "the Wright brothers {realized} that what blocked their way to a solution of the flying problem was not one great gate that would fly open when unlocked with a secret key but rather a series of small sealed doors that would have to be pried open, one after another."

By contrast, the Smithsonian's Samuel P. Langley, bankrolled by thousands of War Department dollars, developed an engineering nightmare that plopped into the Potomac River mere days before the Wrights' first powered flight. For years falsely hailed as the first airplane, in actuality this Langley machine was, as historian Walter Boyne says elsewhere, "an aircraft that had never flown, powered by an engine that had never flown . . . launched by a catapult that had never launched an aircraft, and piloted by a man who had never flown."

Besides relating the story of an amazing invention, contrived by a pair of highly intelligent, mostly self-educated researchers, Howard lifts the veil of time and faithfully presents a culture in which airplanes were unknown. Today, cameras would instantaneously record the Wrights' daring flights in sensational detail. Back then, the brothers were largely ignored, which served their purposes fine. Even some people who had heard of them thought they were aerial acrobats. Howard can be very funny at describing this state of affairs. In 1905 the Wrights were flying off a field northeast of Dayton called Huffman's Prairie. A manufacturer named Weaver arrived to investigate the Wright claims. He is "introduced to farmer David Beard across the pike, who assured him there was absolutely no doubt that the flights had taken place. Even more convincing was an interview with Amos Stauffer, who farmed the fields adjoining Huffman's pasture. 'Well, the boys are at it again,' Stauffer remembered remarking to the helper with whom he had been cutting corn on October 5, the day Wilbur made his 38-minute flight. 'I just kept on shocking corn until I got down to the fence,' he told Weaver, 'and the durned thing was still going round. I thought it would never stop.' " Later, in town, the corner druggist and the head of a savings & loan corroborated the flights. At the Wright home, he met the brothers' father, a bishop in the Nazarene church and a person of considerable personal dignity and evident rectitude. Weaver never had any doubts after that visit.

The big issue in Wright scholarship is how much the brothers owed to others. Howard's account is partisan but fair, and while acknowledging their debts, he conclusively establishes the Wrights' originality and genius. Many heretofore murky corners are illuminated, in particular the Smithsonian's attempt to rewrite history by funding Curtiss' 1915 renovation of Langley's 1903 contraption, an act that was itself an incident in the brothers' lengthy and bitter lawsuit with Curtiss over patent infringement. The Smithsonian, which for years displayed Langley's machine as "the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight," was thereafter viewed by Orville (Wilbur died in 1912) with implacable hostility. Visitors to the National Air and Space Museum today who gawk upward at the 1903 Wright Flyer suspended from the ceiling can scarcely have any idea of how close Orville came to giving the world's first airplane to the British.

New light is also shed on the Wrights' close relationship with Chicago civil engineer Octave Chanute, in 1900 the elder statesman of aeronautics. In that year the 67-year-old Chanute received a letter from the 28-year-old Wilbur beginning, "For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life." It is the first of some 200 letters one brother or another will exchange with Chanute over the next few years. At first helpful and supportive, Chanute later became bitter over the Wrights' success and at what he regarded as their greed. The friendship ended in mutual recriminations, a break that Howard calls "tragic."

But about that first letter. Howard calls it the "opening salvo in an exchange of letters that would comprise as complete a contemporary record of an invention as any such produced." Completeness of the record is important. As the news of the Wrights' success slowly percolated through the embryonic aviation establishment on both sides of the Atlantic, a host of counterclaimants arose to challenge the uniqueness of their achievement and the validity of their patents. By scrupulous sifting of the historical evidence, Howard leaves no doubt as to the Wrights' primacy. No previous biographer has explored these matters in such detail; this is the definitive life.

Of course the many moments of drama and bravery described here eclipse in interest the messy legal battles over patent royalties and manufacturing licenses. Among these moments are the legendary experiments at then remote Kitty Hawk that extended over several seasons, Wilbur's triumphant dishing of the arrogant French aviators with his flights near Le Mans in 1908, and Orville's breaking three world records while soaring above Fort Myer, in the first Washington flights in 1908. Who would have thought that these two lifelong bachelors, nonsmoking, nondrinking minister's sons, would have achieved so much? Fred Howard makes the reader see it all fresh, so that one sees the admiration concealed in Alexander Graham Bell's laconic reply, when asked by reporters why the Wright brothers' airplane was different from all the other flying machines being touted at the time: "It flies." :: Reid Beddow is an assistant editor of Book World.