Stephen Wilhite, the inventor of the GIF, has passed away
Stephen Wilhite, one of the GIF’s primary inventors, died last week of COVID at the age of 74, according to his wife, Kathaleen, who talked to The Verge. He was surrounded by family when he departed. According to his obituary, “despite all of his triumphs, he remained a really humble, kind, and nice man.”
While working at CompuServe in the 1980s, Stephen Wilhite developed GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, which is today used for reactions, messages, and jokes. In the early 2000s, he retired and spent his time travelling, camping, and making model trains in his basement.
Although GIFs are now synonymous with animated internet memes, Wilhite did not invent the format for that purpose. CompuServe introduced them in the late 1980s as a means of distributing “high-quality, high-resolution visuals” in colour at a time when internet connections were glacial in comparison to what they are today. “He invented GIF all by himself – he did it at home and brought it into work when he polished it,” Kathaleen explained. “He would sort everything out in his thoughts privately and then go to town implementing it on the computer.”
If you want to learn more about the history of the GIF, the Daily Dot offers an excellent explanation of how the format became an online craze.
While there have long been discussions about how to pronounce the picture format, Wilhite was very clear about how he wanted it to be stated. “The Oxford English Dictionary permits both pronunciations,” he told The New York Times in 2013. They are incorrect. It’s a soft ‘G’ that’s pronounced ‘Jif.’ “The end of the narrative.”
Later that month, he restated that viewpoint while accepting a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for the creator of the GIF, using animation to deliver his acceptance speech. (You can watch the entire video of him accepting the prize here.) “After 25 years, they finally celebrated that feat that he did,” Kathaleen said, adding that he was most proud of creating the GIF.
Several notes on his obituary page from former colleagues indicated Stephen also made other significant contributions during his time at CompuServe, describing him as a dedicated worker who had a significant impact on the company’s success.
Following Stephen’s retirement, the couple began travelling together. One of the most memorable journeys, according to Kathaleen, was their honeymoon to the Grand Canyon. “I’d never seen it before, and he wanted to show it to me,” she reminisced. She also stated that the couple went camping “all the time.”
He enjoyed working on his model train system at home. “When we were building the house, we actually had an entire part in the basement dedicated to his train room.” “He was always in charge of the layout’s designs and electrical work,” Kathaleen explained.
Wilhite stated in the Times interview that one of his favourite GIFs is the dancing baby meme, which became viral before the terms “memes” and “becoming viral” were commonly used. So, Mr. Wilhite, here’s to you. Thank you for developing the picture format that enabled downloading colour images through dial-up pleasant before it became one of the internet’s own languages.