Stephen E. Wilhite, beloved husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, son, and sibling, has passed away at age 74 from COVID. Even if you did not know him, and even if you do not recognize his name, he had a direct impact on your life. We know because you’re reading this on the internet right now. The worldwide web is where he made a lasting and memorable contribution. Wilhite invented the GIF. And he also guaranteed we’ll forever be arguing over how to pronounce it.
Wilhite’s family told The Verge he died with his loved ones around him. His obituary also says that “even with all his accomplishments, he remained a very humble, kind, and good man.” Those accomplishments include retiring from American Online as the company’s Chief Architect. And also winning a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award.
But his place in internet lore was secured by his time working at CompuServe in the ’80s. It was there he led the team that developed the Graphics Interchange Format. While we now know GIFs for its many comical uses, especially as a common way to express a funny reaction, their initial purpose was far less hilarious. From Smithsonian Magazine:
Developer Steve Wilhite and his team at tech giant CompuServe had a problem to solve: how to make a computer display an image while also saving memory. It was 1987, four years before the advent of the World Wide Web, when users who wanted to access email or transfer files did so with hourly subscriptions from companies like CompuServe. Then as now, the issue was space. How could a color image file be shared without taking up too much of the computer’s memory? Wilhite found a way to do so using a compression algorithm combined with image parameters like the number of available colors (256). His new creation could be used for exchange images between computers, and he called it Graphics Interchange Format. The GIF was born.
The father of the GIF’s contributions to the format went to a whole new level when in 2013 he weighed in on the argument over how to pronounce GIF. Most people pronounced (and still do) GIF with a hard “g” like the word “guard.” That seemed logical since the letter stands for “graphics.” But Wilhite shocked everyone by saying the correct pronunciation was a soft “j,” like “Jiffy Pop.”
Was he right? Was he wrong? (Or, in this case, wronj?) It doesn’t matter. Not only did he give us the GIF, he gave us a silly debate that will last just as long. And for that, there’s only one thing left to do to honor the Father of the GIF.