Pearce Atkinson was born on January 9, 1868, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of George W. P. and Margaret P. Atkinson. During his early life, he lived in Racine, Wisconsin, and Cleveland, Ohio, and his family eventually moved to Chicago, Illinois. In 1885, he entered the School of Mechanical Engineering at Lehigh University, where he joined the Delta Upsilon fraternity; after his graduation in 1889, the University published his book on the subject of steam heating in railway cars. After receiving his degree, Atkinson worked as an engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad Company in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, and later worked as a contractor for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Between 1895 and 1896 he worked for Atkinson Mining Engineers and Mining Operators in Cripple Creek, Colorado. In 1896, he traveled to Cuba, where he reportedly served as aide-de-camp for Cuban General Antonio Maceo Grajales; he died in Pinar del Río, Cuba, on August 4 of that year. He had two younger brothers, Clarence and Arthur.