AUBURN — This is the story of Super Awesome Sylvia, an ingenious little girl who made robots, or so everyone thought.
At age 8, Sylvia Todd put on a lab coat and started a web show. A gaptoothed little kid with a pony tail and soldering iron, a rare sight in the boy’s club of amateur inventors.
Before long, Sylvia had tens of thousands of viewers. And tons of robots, of course.
The most famous was Super Awesome Sylvia’s WaterColor Bot. It did exactly what it sounds like — it painted any picture you asked it to.
But that bot did other things, too.
It got Sylvia invited to the White House Science Fair in 2013, when President Barack Obama tried it out and told its shaky-legged, 11-year-old inventor that it was great to see girls in tech.
Then came reporters, magazine profiles, even book deals. A story in the New York Times described Sylvia as half-silly, half-serious — and “(almost) certain that her future lies in science.”
By middle school, Sylvia was giving speeches all over the world, from the United Nations to elite girls’ schools in Australia. This was a big deal for a kid from a small town in Northern California, whose parents often worried about paying the next bill.
That’s how — year after year, show after show, speech after speech — Super Awesome Sylvia’s robots turned a little kid into a role model for girls everywhere.
And that’s how they trapped him.
Because underneath the pony tail and the prop lab coat, Sylvia didn’t feel like a genius, or a celebrity, or a girl.
This is the story of Zephyrus Todd, a 16-year-old boy who prefers art to science, and knows a lot more about himself now than when people called him Sylvia and assumed he was a girl. It’s about how Zeph got stuck inside Super Awesome Sylvia, “trying to be that person,” as he puts it.
And how he broke free.
‘My name is Sylvia’
In the beginning there was simply Sylvia. No Zeph, no super awesome anything. Just Sylvia and his mom and dad (and later a brother and two sisters) growing up in Auburn. A regular little girl, by all appearances.
“When I was a kid, I was just a kid,” Zeph said. “Making cool stuff.”
Zeph had always wanted to know how things worked.
He liked to pull apart old laptops and put together electronic kits with his dad, James, a computer programmer.
One day in 2010, Zeph decided to make a YouTube show about making things. His mom, Christina, sewed a lab coat fit for an 8-year-old. Dad helped write the scripts and held the camera, and Zeph just did his thing.
“Hi! My name is Sylvia and this is our super awesome Maker shoooow!” Zeph said in the first episode, pumping his arms in the air. “Let’s get out there and experiment!”
Super Awesome Sylvia showed kids how to make a pencil that squeaked when it conducted electricity, and a cardboard periscope, and soft electric circuits and a heartbeat pendant.
And kids watched. And Zeph watched, amazed, as hundreds of viewers became thousands. Make Magazine started hosting the show on its YouTube channel, and altogether more than a million people clicked on Sylvia’s videos.