Legendary: Stephen E. Wilhite, lead creator of the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF), died last week. The image format probably should have faded into the sunset long ago; instead, GIFs experienced a renaissance of sorts thanks to a built-in animation feature that became popular on the web in the 2000s. The proliferation of smartphones only helped to solidify the GIF’s place as a true medium for modern communication.
Wilhite spent much of his career with CompuServe where, in the late 80s, he served as the lead engineer on the team that came up with the GIF image format. GIFs were originally designed as a way to display and exchange “high-quality, high-resolution graphics” at a time when computer hardware was very primitive and transfer speeds were painfully slow.
His wife, Kathaleen Wilhite, told The Verge that her husband invented the GIF all by himself. “He actually did that at home and brought it into work after he perfected it,” Kathaleen said, “He would figure out everything privately in his head and then go to town programming it on the computer.”
Jason Reed, art director at the Daily Dot, told NPR that without the GIF, the Internet as we know it would be a different place. “It’s a tight medium that you can learn alot about storytelling within, especially tuned for the attention span of the internet,” Reed added,
Wilhite worked for CompuServe on various projects before retiring in the early 2000s.
Wilhite during his Webby Lifetime Achievement award acceptance speech in 2013 cleared up any misconception about how to correctly pronounce GIF. It’s “JIF,” as in the peanut butter brand, not “GIF” like a gift.
Wilhite died from complications related to Covid-19 on March 14. He was 74.
Image credit The Webby Awards