As long ago as 1873, and very likely even earlier, courts were speaking of the public utility in the sense of the public convenience or advantage, a New Jersey court saying, "these prerogatives (of railway corporations) are grants from the government, and public utility is the consideration for them." This has been often quoted by other courts, notably by your Judge Atherton in the famous case of Scofield v. Railway in 1885. But the term "public utility'' as applied to plants or corporations rendering a public service is very new. It is not to be found in the 1904 edition of "Words and Phrases Judicially Defined," nor does it occur in the old law dictionaries. However, before 1904 the term was used in the statutes of Wisconsin and some other States, and thence found its way into decisions. The term "public utility" has now very generally displaced the earlier, less satisfactory and more limited term "public service company," and is applied variously to the owning or operating company, the plant which is operated, the product or service furnished to the public, and especially to the business which furnishes this service. It is in this last sense that I use the term.
Edwin C. Goddard,
THE EVOLUTION AND DEVOLUTION OF PUBLIC UTILITY LAW,
Mich. L. Rev.
Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mlr/vol32/iss5/2