Stephen E. Wilhite, the inventor of the GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), has passed away. He was 74 years old at the time.
Wilhite, a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award winner who retired as Chief Architect from America Online, died on March 14, according to his obituary. His wife told NPR that he died in a hospital near their home in Milford, Ohio, following COVID-19 complications.
In the 1980s, Wilhite worked as a computer scientist for CompuServe, an internet firm. During his stay there, he invented the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF), which has since become a popular way to send jokes, messages, and fast reactions.
The format was first established by the corporation to distribute “high-quality, high-resolution graphics” in color when the internet was not as fast as it is now.
His wife Kathaleen told The Verge that her late husband devised the GIF “all by himself.”
She revealed, “He actually did that at home and brought it into work after he perfected it,” she shared. “He would figure out everything privately in his head and then go to town programming it on the computer.”
Who was Stephen E. Wilhite?
Wilhite was an enthusiastic camper and traveler, according to his obituary page, in addition to his enthusiasm for technology. According to New York Times, he eventually quit his work at America Online in the early 2000s after suffering a stroke.
Wilhite was honored with a Webby Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013 for his contributions to internet culture. Despite his achievements, he was remembered as “a really humble, gentle, and kind man,” according to his obituary.
Wilhite told the New York Times in 2013 that his first image was a photograph of an airplane, but his favorite was the legendary “dancing baby” from 1996.
During the conversation, he also clarified the debate about how to pronounce GIF.
“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” he said at the time. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”
Wilhite is survived by his wife, Kathleen, stepchildren Rick Groves, Robin Landrum, Renee Bennett and Rebecca Boaz and son David.