Creator of GIF Stephen Wilhite Dies at 74

Creator of GIF Stephen Wilhite Dies at 74

Stephen Wilhite, one of the creators of the internet-ubiquitous GIF, recently passed away from COVID-19 at age 74, The Verge reports.

In the 1980s, Wilhite created the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF for short, while working at the first major online service provider, CompuServe.

“He invented GIF all by himself — he actually did that at home and brought it into work after he perfected it,” said his wife, Kathaleen, in a recently published obituary. While its primary function as of late is to create animated memes and reaction posts, the GIF's initial purpose was to distribute “high-quality, high-resolution graphics” on the internet.

CompuServe then introduced the format in the late 1980s where it remained stagnant until 1998 when the company was bought by AOL. The patents for GIF expired, enabling the public to start tinkering with it. Russian artist Olia Lialina was one of the first to pick it up in 1997, followed by late animator Chuck Poynter who passed away in 2001 but left behind a bunch of animations that are considered to be early landmark GIFs.

When Tumblr got a hold of GIFs around 2007, everything changed; the format was subsequently picked up by more social platforms, including Myspace, Facebook, Instagram and more. And now, in 2022, entire news reports are built through the file type.

To think that through it all, Wilhite got to see the rise of his creation in real time. “Even with all his accomplishments, he remained a very humble, kind and good man,” reads his official obituary.

​Still, with all its proliferation, there still seems to be a lack of consensus on how to pronounce the oft-used GIF. In 2013, Wilhite spoke to The New York Times about its official pronunciation. “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” he said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

We can't argue with the inventor himself. Rest in peace, Stephen Wilhite. You’ve contributed more to pop culture than you could ever imagine.

Photo via Getty/ Jakub Porzycki/ NurPhot