Remembering the late Stephen Wilhite, lead inventor of the GIF

In 2013, Wilhite received the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award where he was also honoured with a montage of iconic GIFs made by Internet users over the years. — Screenshot from The Webby Awards/YouTube

Computer scientist Stephen Wilhite, who is known for inventing the Graphics Interchange Format or GIF, has died of Covid-19 on March 14. He was 74 years old.

According to a report by The Verge, Wilhite – while working for CompuServe in the late 1980s – invented GIFs as a way to distribute high quality images with high resolution during a time when Internet speeds were considered sluggish compared to today’s standards.

His wife Kathaleen told The Verge that Wilhite invented the GIF all by himself, where the work had started at home.

“He would figure out everything privately in his head and then go to town programming it on the computer,” she said.

An article by website Daily Dot stated that the GIF was first introduced to the world in 1987 by CompuServe. Former chief technical officer Alexander Trevor said it was the best and most versatile image format.

“If you want lossless, compressed graphics, there is nothing better than GIF. Yes, JPEG is better for photos, but you can tolerate loss in photos. And PNG has some benefits, but for most applications it is not worth the additional implementation hassle,” Trevor said to the Daily Dot.

An enhanced version of the GIF was introduced in the same year called 87a where it allowed people to create compressed animations using timed delays. Wilhite said to Daily Dot that the first GIF ever was a picture of a plane.

In 2013, Wilhite received the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award where he was also honoured with a montage of iconic GIFs made by Internet users over the years.

Instead of presenting a speech, Wilhite addressed the audience at the event with a GIF that said “It’s pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF’”.

According to the Webby Awards on its website, Wilhite’s invention changed the way users interact on the Web and also presented designers and developers with more ways to present visual data or imagery.

Despite developments in moving image or animation technology, the GIF has remained a staple image format where it can also be used to share news and information. The popularity of GIFs today is also driven by memes which help to boost conversations of popular topics on social media.

Popular messaging applications like WhatsApp allow users to search for GIFs in chats and they can also create their own GIFs.

In an interview with the New York Times, Wilhite said that one of his favourite GIFs is the dancing baby, which first became a viral Internet meme back in 1996.

On his obituary page, Wilhite is described as a good man who remained kind and humble despite all his accomplishments.

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GIF , Stephen Wilhite


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