According to his wife, Kathaleen, who talked to The Verge, Stephen Wilhite, one of the key inventors of the GIF, died last week from COVID at the age of 74. When he passed, he was surrounded by loved ones. “Even with all his accomplishments, he remained a very humble, kind, and kind man,” according to his obituary website.
During his time at CompuServe in the 1980s, Stephen Wilhite worked on GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, which is today 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 invent the format for that reason. In the late 1980s, CompuServe offered them as a way to distribute “high-quality, high-resolution graphics” in color at a period when internet rates were slow compared to what they are now.
The Daily Dot has a fantastic overview of how the GIF became an online craze if you want to dig deeper into the history of the format.
While there have long been arguments over how to pronounce the picture format correctly, 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 mistaken. It’s pronounced ‘Jif,’ with a soft ‘G.’ “End of the story.”
Later that month, he reaffirmed his position when winning a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for the creation of the GIF, delivering his acceptance speech through animation. (You can see the entire video of him accepting the prize here.) “They finally honored that feat that he did after 25 years,” Kathaleen said, adding that producing the GIF was his proudest achievement.
Several notes on his obituary page from former colleagues indicated Stephen 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 adventures, according to Kathaleen, was their honeymoon trip to the Grand Canyon. He enjoyed working on his model train set when he was at home.