Joseph Preston was born on 1 March 1911, the son of William Preston, a farmer, and his wife, Jean. He first attended Bampton school, 1916-1921, then the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Penrith, 1921-1929, after which he moved to London to study aeronautical engineering at Queen Mary College. On graduating in 1932 he spent a brief training period at the Short Brothers seaplane works, before returning to his college to study for a Ph.D. which he obtained in 1936.
On 18 April 1938 Preston married a schoolteacher, Ethel Noble. They had two children, a boy and a girl. As war approached Preston left his new position as assistant lecturer at Imperial College, and moved to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). There he worked on aerodynamics relating to the design of aircraft wings. During this period he devised methods to quantify the influence that the growth of the boundary layer (the flow adjacent to the surface that is retarded by viscous forces) has on a wing's performance. He also studied the aerodynamics of control surfaces and pioneered research into applying suction to reduce drag and prevent stall.
In 1946 Preston returned to university life, at Cambridge University's engineering department where he was appointed lecturer in aeronautics. He continued his study of aerofoils, concentrating on boundary layers and devising methods to measure skin friction. While at Cambridge in 1954 he invented the famous Preston tube probe. In the following year, after having become Reader, Preston moved to the University of Liverpool as professor of fluid mechanics, a post he held for twenty-one years. Here he also studied water flows, particularly the effect of flow on ships' hulls.
Preston died on 28 July 1985.
In addition to reprints of most of Preston's published scientific papers the collection consists principally of manuscript working papers either for research projects, articles or lectures throughout his career.
The papers of Professor J H Preston were deposited in the Churchill Archives Centre by his widow in May 1986 and June 1988.
The papers are owned by Churchill College, Cambridge.