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Stephen Wilhite, creator of the GIF, has passed away

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Stephen Wilhite, one of the principal inventors of the GIF, died of COVID last week at age 74, according to his wife Kathalene, who spoke to The edge† He was surrounded by family when he died. To be death page notes that “even with all his achievements, he remained a very humble, kind and good man.”

Stephen Wilhite worked on GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, which is now used for comments, messages, and jokes while at CompuServe in the 1980s. He retired around the early 2000s and spent his time traveling, camping and building model trains in his basement.

While GIFs are synonymous with animated Internet memes these days, that wasn’t why Wilhite created the format. CompuServe introduced them in the late 80s as a way to distribute “high-quality, high-resolution images” in color at a time when internet speeds were icy compared to what they are today. “He invented GIF all by himself — he did that at home and brought it to work after perfecting it,” Kathaleen said. “He would sort everything out in his head privately and then go to town and program it on the computer.”

If you want to delve deeper into the history of the GIF, the Daily Point has a good explanation how the format became an internet phenomenon.

Although there have long been discussions about the correct pronunciation of the picture formatWilhite was very clear about how he wanted to say it. In 2013 he has told The New York Times, “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both statements. They’re wrong. It’s a soft ‘G’, pronounced ‘jif’. End of story.”

He reiterated that stance as he took home a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for the invention of the GIF later that month, using animation to deliver his acceptance speech. (You can watch the whole clip of him receiving the award here.) “After 25 years, they finally honored that achievement he did,” Kathaleen said, adding that making the GIF was the thing he was most proud of.

Various messages from former colleagues on his obituary page said Stephen made other significant contributions during his time at CompuServe, describing a hard worker who was a major influence on the company’s success.

After Stephen retired, the couple traveled together. Kathaleen said that one of the most memorable trips was their honeymoon when they visited the Grand Canyon. “I’d never seen it before, and he wanted to show it to me,” she said lovingly. The couple also went camping “all the time,” she said.

At home he liked to work on his model train set. “When we had the house built, we actually had a whole section in the basement in front of his train room. He always did the design and electrical work for the layout,” says Kathalene.

In the Time interview Wilhite said that one of his favorite GIFs is the dancing baby meme, which went viral before “memes” and “going viral” were common terms. So here is for you mister Wilhite† Thanks for creating the image format that made dial-up color images download bearable before it became one of the Internet’s native languages.

One of Wilhite’s favorite gifs, according to a 2013 interview.
Gif via The New York Times

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