James Henry Neal, mechanical and civil engineer, was educated at the Davenport High School and Stoke Public School. After serving a six year apprenticeship at the Royal Dockyard, Devonport, he was awarded the Whitworth exhibition and scholarship to study at the Royal College of Science (part of the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London) and became an associate of the college in 1910. After some time as a lecturer at the Technical Day School in Birmingham he was awarded a research scholarship at the National Physical Laboratory, where he was involved in research on aircraft propellers. He also took part in tests of aircraft engines at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and was appointed head of the Engineering Department of the Doncaster Technical College.
Neal came to South Africa in 1914 to teach engineering at the Durban Technical Institute (in 1915 renamed the Durban Technical College). Among others he trained soldiers returning from World War I (1914-1918) in parts of mechanical engineering. His engineering work was of such a high standard that in 1922, when the college became the Natal Technical College, engineering was taken over by the Natal University College and he became the first professor of mechanical and civil engineering on the Durban staff of this college (which in 1950 became the University of Natal). He designed and equipped new laboratories for mechanical and civil engineering, work which occupied him to 1931. From 1944 he was professor of mechanical engineering only, a post he held until his retirement in 1950. During World War II (1939-1945) he joined the South African Air Force and trained students in Air Force mechanics at Howard College. He contributed a memorandum on engineering to a book by E.H. Jones, Developments in education with special reference to technical education (1920), and wrote many technical papers.
Neal served as dean of the Faculty of Engineering of Natal University College from 1933 to 1949 and of its successor, the University of Natal, to his retirement in 1950. He was also a member of the council of the Natal Technical College until just before his death. With Dr E P Reim he organised the formation of the Durban branch of the Engineers' Association of South Africa in 1947 and served as its first chairman. He was a foundation member and at some time president of the Natal Institute of Engineers, a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and a member of the (British) Institution of Mechanical Engineers. In 1962 the University of Natal awarded him the honorary degree Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering.
Neal was married to Mary Townson, with whom he had two daughters.