Stephen Wilhite, the man widely credited as being the creator of the Graphics Interchange Format image, better known as the gif, has died at the age of 74.
Wilhite’s wife Kathleen has been confirming with media outlets that her husband died of Covid on March 14.
He worked for decades at CompuServe, and while there led the team responsible for the gif. Introduced in 1987, at the time it was intended as an optimal way to create colour images, a lot easier to download over dial-up modem speeds than existing formats.
“He invented GIF all by himself—he actually did that at home and brought it into work after he perfected it,” Kathleen told The Verge. “He would figure out everything privately in his head and then go to town programming it on the computer.”
While famous as the man who invented the format, Wilhite is almost as famous for his thoughts on how to pronounce the word. While most of the world has settled on using a hard G (“gif”), owing to the word’s spelling, Wilhite maintained that it should be pronounced “jiff”, and even went so far as to devote his Webby Lifetime Achievement award acceptance speech to reminding everyone of this.
We may know them now as one of the best ways to communicate and express emotions/sentiment online, with short animated images baked into everything from Facebook to smartphone keyboards, but while gifs have always held at least some basic animation functionality, that aspect of their use didn’t really take off until the 1990s when early web browsers began supporting the feature.
Friends, former colleagues and family have been posting their memories of Wilhite on a memorial page, a reminder that while he was most well-known for his work on one of the most important aspects of the modern internet, his contributions over a long career spanned everything from user interface work to “web chat software.”