The GIF is now a commonplace part of internet life, serving as a useful tool for expression and communication. Reactions, messages, jokes, and animated web memes are all frequent uses for GIFs. It’s strange to imagine a computer scientist in the 1980s laying the groundwork for a veritable language of short movies that would most likely be used by generations he would never meet.

With restrictions such as 256 colors per animation, the format might have easily faded out years ago. It did, however, have another trick: Wilhite built it to retain several frames, making it ideal for brief animations. After AOL bought CompuServe and allowed the patent lapse, it took on a life of its own, especially among artists and Tumblr users.

Stephen Wilhite, the inventor of the GIF, died of COVID-19 at the age of 74, with his wife Kathaleen by his side. He created the “Graphics Interchange Format” while at CompuServe, which allowed photo uploads over poor modem connections. Regardless of how you pronounce it, GIFs have now become synonymous with brief meme videos.

Wilhite’s contributions:

Apart from creating GIFs, Wilhite made other significant contributions to CompuServe that helped it grow into the internet behemoth of the time. On Wilhite’s obituary page, coworker Ty Wait remarked, “I greatly admired his intelligence and perseverance as he continuously built software solutions that were weaved into CompuServe’s tapestry of offers for corporate, hobbyist, and residential users.”

How to correctly pronounce GIF has been contested since it was conceived in 1987 as a way of cleanly compressing pictures and was once merely a part of the language of hardcore computer fans.

Wilhite finally put an end to the long discussion about the correct pronunciation of the term in 2013, claiming that the G was “soft” and that the name sounded like the peanut butter brand.

The GIF remains a popular and adored feature of the web 35 years after its conception, and numerous generations of graphics and animation formats later. GIF search engines have been integrated into social networks such as Twitter and Telegram, and are fed with fragments of memorable moments and video clips.

Wilhite was awarded a Webby Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013 for developing the file format.

According to The Official Webby Website:

‘The proliferation of the GIF within today’s meme-powered, Tumblr-driven pop culture, proves it a lasting format still among the most celebrated on the Web (despite the hotly contested controversy over its correct pronunciation). 

‘With 2012 being the 25th anniversary of the GIF we think the 17th Annual Webby Awards is a most fitting event to honor and celebrate Steve Wilhite and this historical achievement. After that, Wilhite worked for America Online prior to actually retiring in the early 2000s.

Even after retirement, Wihite kept his mind active by going on excursions with his wife, camping, and working on his model train set.

Final thoughts

Wilhite’s innovation has earned him a lot of accolades over the years, especially in the last ten years or so, as meme culture has adopted the file as a way of rapidly and efficiently distributing messages driven by everything from humor to politics over the Internet.

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