Stephen Wilhite, Creator Of The GIF, Has Died
Stephen Wilhite, creator of the Graphic Interchange Format or GIF, passed away on March 14 following complications from COVID. He was 74.
Wilhite invented the GIF in 1987 while he was working for CompuServe, the US’ first major online service. It was created as a way to share “high-quality, high-resolution graphics” in color back when the dial-up speeds could barely load images.
Bandwidths have since improved and the format has since evolved to become a language of its own. It blew up in the 2010s as it became the favored meme format. It was even honored as “word of the year” in 2012. Wilhite was awarded a lifetime achievement award at The Webby Awards the following year.
Wilhite is survived by his wife Kathaleen, who shared that the GIF was his proudest creation. He was also very adamant about its pronunciation, and he reiterated in his Webbys acceptance speech that it is, in fact, pronounced with a soft “g.” So it’s “jif” like “giraffe,” and not “gif” like “gift.”
He retired in the early 2000s and spent the last two decades of his life building model trains in his basement when he was not traveling and camping with his wife.
Wilhite will forever be remembered for his contribution not just to compression technology, but also to pop culture. The GIF is the internet’s prose. It has enabled people across generations to capture and share every type of reaction, from all sorts of references. It has given us the power to express the subtlest of inflections, and some of the most poignant truths with a few frames and a caption. Wilhite, through the GIF, has helped shape the way we interact with the online world.
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