William Lawson Adams, Jr. was born in Morrisville, Madison County, New York, on July 13, 1842. He prepared at the Troy Academy, and graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1863. After graduation he was assistant engineer on the Brooklyn water works until October 1863. Then, until May 1864, he was engaged in the United States civil service in charge of government surveys in the Sea Islands. From 1864 to 1865, he was acting professor of geodesy, road engineering and topographical drawing at Rensselaer. From 1866 to 1869 he was assistant engineer on a railroad in Iowa. From 1869 to 1872 he was engineer of the land department, for the Union Pacific railroad. From 1872 to 1876 he was professor of geodesy, road engineering and topographical drawing. And from 1876 to 1878, Adams was Director of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and professor of road engineering and topographical drawing. After leaving Rensselaer Adams went on to be assistant engineer on the Union Pacific railroad from 1878 to 1880 and from 1880 to 1883 he was principal assistant engineer on the Missouri Pacific railroad.