William Oliphant was the son of William Oliphant, bookseller and Mary Irvine. He was born on 14 January 1807; educated at Edinburgh High School and Edinburgh University. He learnt the trade with his father, and afterwards for a year with Mr Curry of Dublin. In 1831 he went into partnership with his father. He married, in 1841, Martha, only daughter of James Marshall, merchant of Glasgow, but they had no children. After the death of his father in 1842, and of his younger brother, Walter, who had also entered the business, in 1846, he remained sole partner in the business until about 1858. At that point his own ill-health caused him to take two partners [perhaps Robert Anderson and J.S. Ferrier]. He was interested in science, and was Secretary and Treasurer at different times of The Royal Physical Society. He also was a Justice of the Peace for the City of Edinburgh.