Stephen Wilhite, one of the lead Creator of the GIF, died last week from COVID at the age of 74. When he died, he was surrounded by his family. “Even with all his accomplishments, he remained a very humble, kind, and good man,” according to his obituary page. according to his wife Kathaleen
During his time at CompuServe in the 1980s, Stephen Wilhite worked on GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, which is now used for reactions, messages, and jokes. In the early 2000s, he retired and spent his time traveling, camping, and constructing model trains in his basement.
Although animated internet memes are now synonymous with GIFs, Wilhite didn’t create the format for that reason. In the late 1980s, CompuServe introduced them as a way to distribute “high-quality, high-resolution graphics” in color at a time when internet speeds were slow compared to what they are now. “He invented GIF on his own,” Kathaleen explained. “He did it at home and then brought it to work after he perfected it.” “In his head, he’d figure out everything and then go to town programming it on the computer.”
The Daily Dot has a good explainer of how the GIF became an internet phenomenon if you want to go deeper into the history of the format.
While there have long been debates about how to pronounce the image format correctly, Wilhite was very clear about how he wanted it to be said. “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” he told The New York Times in 2013. They are mistaken. It’s pronounced ‘jif,’ with a soft ‘G.’ “This is the end of the story.”
Later that month, he reaffirmed his position when accepting a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for the invention of the GIF, delivering his acceptance speech via animation. (You can see the entire video of him accepting the award here.) “They finally honored that achievement that he did after 25 years,” Kathaleen said, adding that creating the GIF was his proudest achievement.
Several messages on his obituary page from former colleagues said Stephen made other significant contributions during his time at CompuServe, describing him as a hard worker who had a significant impact on the company’s success.
Following Stephen’s retirement,
the couple began traveling together. One of the most memorable trips, according to Kathaleen, was their honeymoon trip to the Grand Canyon. “He wanted to show it to me because I had never seen it before,” she said fondly. She added that the couple went camping “all the time.”
He enjoyed working on his model train set when he was at home. “We actually had a whole section in the basement built for his train room when we had the house built.” “He was always in charge of the layout’s designs and electrical work,” Kathaleen explained.
Wilhite said in the Times interview that one of his favorite GIFs is the dancing baby meme, which became popular before the terms “memes” and “going viral” were widely used. So, Mr. Wilhite, here’s to you. Thank you for inventing the image format that made color image downloads over dial-up bearable before it became one of the internet’s own languages.