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Stephen E. Wilhite, the lead creator of the GIF file format, dead at 74 from COVID-19

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Stephen E. Wilhite, one of the lead inventors behind the GIF file format, passed away on Monday, March 14th, from COVID-19 at age 74.

Wilhite was working at CompuServe when he came up with the idea for GIFs. In the late 1980s, the internet was accessed via phone modems. This meant that being on a phone call via a landline, and online at the same time, simply wasn’t possible.

Lossless, compressed graphics were ideal for agonizingly slow connections and this is what made GIFs useful. People could easily create compressed animations, in color versus the standard black and white of that time period, and transfer them efficiently.

‘I think the first GIF was a picture of a plane. It was a long time ago,’ Wilhite told the Daily Dot in a rare interview via Facebook back in 2012. For the next several decades to come, up to this present day, GIFs have been a medium to create reactions and memes. They are omnipresent on social media platforms such as Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.

Wilhite remained at CompuServe, working on various systems through the 1990s and retiring in the early 2000s, serving as AOL’s Chief Architect, after suffering a stroke. AOL acquired Compuserve in 1998 and allowed the patents for GIF to expire: opening the format up to the public domain.

Accompanied by his wife, Kathaleen (pictured in the embedded header image), Wilhite often camped and traveled. He also enjoyed computer programming and building model trains in his basement during his retirement years. In 2013, Wilhite gave a 5-word speech to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 17th Annual Webby Awards in which he weighed-in on how to pronounce the popular acronym. His intention had been that a soft ‘j’ be used, like in the pronunciation of the popular North American peanut butter brand Jif.

Wilhite contracted COVID on March 1st. He told Kathaleen, who had also tested positive, he wasn’t feeling well and was subsequently taken to the hospital. Due to restrictions, she couldn’t be at his beside while he was battling the virus. His condition eventually took a turn for the worse and he was placed in a medically-induced coma before passing away on the 14th. His legacy will live on for generations to come.

‘Without the .gif, the internet as we know it would be a different place,’ Jason Reed, Daily Dot’s art director, told NPR over the Signal messaging service. ‘It’s a tight medium that you can learn a lot about storytelling within, especially tuned for the attention span of the internet.’

According to his obituary, Wilhite is survived by Kathaleen, his stepchildren Rick Groves, Robin Landrum, Renee (Daniel) Bennett, Rebecca (Brent) Boaz, his son David Wilhite, 11 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. You can join thousands of fans in honoring his memory by sharing condolences to Wilhite, and his family, on this Tribute Wall.


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