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Gif inventor Stephen Wilhite ‘helped shape the modern world’
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a gif is worth millions. The image file format has been a defining element of internet culture for decades, with glass-raising DiCaprios and mic-dropping Obamas facilitating self-expression in a faceless digital world. And we have one man to thank for all the jokes, snark and praise: Stephen Wilhite, inventor of the gif, who died last week, aged 74.

A lifelong coder, Stephen Wilhite created the gif in 1987 while working at CompuServe. The compressed image files were useful at a time when internet connections dragged. “If you want lossless, compressed graphics, there is nothing better than gif,” said Sandy Trevor, who managed Wilhite’s team, to the Daily Dot in 2012.

Wilhite “invented gif all by himself – he actually did that at home and brought it into work after he perfected it”, said Kathaleen Wilhite to the Verge. “He would figure out everything privately in his head and then go to town programming it on the computer.” It was his proudest achievement, she said.

The same year, an update led to animated graphics. “I think the first gif was a picture of a plane. It was a long time ago,” Stephen Wilhite told the Daily Dot in 2012. Indeed, according to Giphy, the go-to site for gif seekers, it was the image of a plane.

Wilhite worked for Compuserve until 2001, after he had a stroke. Meanwhile, gifs’ popularity took off, including on early social media sites such as MySpace. By 1996, the “dancing baby” image – one of Wilhite’s favorites, he told the New York Times – was plastered across the the web and attached to emails. In 2012, “gif” was dubbed word of the year by Oxford American Dictionaries. The next year, the New York Times called the format “the aesthetic calling card of modern Internet culture”.

Giphy offered a tribute of its own, hailing “the simplicity of the format, the power of the looping image. We are indebted to the creativity and vision of Mr Wilhite.” For those who’d like to honor Wilhite’s memory themselves, there are plenty of gifs that pay tribute to their inventor. Perhaps even better, you can heed his unequivocal advice: pronounce it “jif”.

Stephen Wilhite worked on GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, which is now used for reactions, messages, and jokes, while employed at CompuServe in the 1980s. He retired around the early 2000s and spent his time traveling, camping, and building model trains in his basement. Although GIFs are synonymous with animated internet memes these days, that wasn’t the reason Wilhite created the format. CompuServe introduced them in the late 1980s as a way to distribute “high-quality, high-resolution graphics” in color at a time when internet speeds were glacial compared to what they are today.

Stephen Earl Wilhite (March 3, 1948 – March 14, 2022) was an American computer scientist who worked at CompuServe and was the Engineering Lead on the team that adapted the GIF image file format from the earlier Unisys-owned LZW algorithm. GIF went on to become the de facto standard for 8-bit color images on the Internet until PNG became a viable alternative. Known as the inventor or creator of the GIF, he received a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.
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Image courtesy The Guardian

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