Scherbius was born in Frankfurt am Main and his father was a small businessman. He studied electricity at the Technical College in Munich, and then went on to study at the Technical College in Hanover, finishing in March 1903. The next year, he completed a dissertation titled "Proposal for the Construction of an Indirect Water Turbine Governor", and was awarded a doctorate in engineering (Dr.-Ing.).
Scherbius subsequently worked for a number of electrical firms in Germany and Switzerland. In 1918, he founded the firm of Scherbius & Ritter. He made a number of inventions, e.g. asynchronous motors, electric pillows and ceramic heating parts; his research contributions led to his name being associated with the Scherbius principle for asynchronous motors.
Scherbius applied for a patent (filed 23 February 1918) for a cipher machine based on rotating wired wheels, what is now known as a rotor machine. Scherbius' company also purchased the rights to another patent for a rotor machine from Hugo Koch—patented in 1919. Business was slow enough that the firm was reorganized at least twice in the 1920s.
The firm's cipher machine, marketed under the name "Enigma", was initially pitched at the commercial market. There were several commercial models, and one of them was adopted by the German Navy (in a modified version) in 1926. The German Army adopted the same machine (also in a modified version somewhat different from the Navy's) a few years later.
Scherbius saw none of this as he was killed in a horse carriage accident in 1929.
- David Kahn, Seizing the Enigma, 1991.