Stephen Wilhite, creator of animated GIF, dies at 74

Stephen E. Wilhite, a computer programmer who was best known for inventing the GIF, the looping animations that have become a universal language for conveying humor, sarcasm and angst on social media and in instant messages, died in Cincinnati on March 14. He was 74 years old. .

His death, which occurred in hospital, was confirmed Thursday by his wife, Kathaleen Wilhite, who said the cause was complications from Covid-19.

In 1987, while Mr. Wilhite worked for CompuServe, the nation’s first online service, he led a team of engineers that revolutionized the way people could share video clips on the Internet. They called the format they created a GIF, short for Graphics Interchange Format, a type of compressed image file with an ease of use that made it durable.

The appeal of the technology has spread from computers to smartphones, giving celebrities and those not so famous the ability to share GIFs on platforms like Twitter and Facebook and eventually create their own loops. It inspired the famous “dancing baby” GIF in 1996 and popular apps like Giphy.

“I saw the format I wanted in my head, then I started programming,” Wilhite said. told the New York Times in 2013.

That year, Mr. Wilhite, who was also a former chief architect of America Online, received a lifetime achievement award at the Webby Awards.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Wilhite’s survivors include a son, David Wilhite; her stepchildren Rick Groves, Robin Landrum, Renee Bennett and Rebecca Boaz; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In 2012, Oxford American Dictionaries recognized the GIF as its “word of the year.”

While the usefulness of Mr. Wilhite’s innovation was unquestioned, the pronunciation of “GIF” was a frequent topic of debate. Was it pronounced with a hard or soft G sound?

“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Wilhite said. “They’re wrong. It’s a soft G, pronounced ‘jif’. End of story.”

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