GIF creator Steve Wilhite has died at the age of 74 after contracting Covid-19, NPR reports. According to his wife Kathaleen Wilhite, her husband contracted the virus on March 1 and was later hospitalized, passing away on March 14.
Wilhite’s wife told NPR her husband had a lifelong passion for tinkering with his creations and computer programming, which continued in the weeks leading up to his diagnosis. It was 1987 when Wilhite developed the “Graphics Interchange Format” (GIF) while working at CompuServe. In a rare interview via Facebook in 2012, he told the Daily Dot, “I think the first GIF was a picture of a plane. It was a long time ago.”
– Doug McKenzie (@dougmckenzie) June 15, 2017
The GIF was revolutionary at its time, when internet speeds were much slower than they are today. The technology’s compressed format enabled the more efficient transfer of images, and an animation feature was added to an updated version. When AOL purchased CompuServe in 1998 and let the GIF’s patent expire, GIFs proliferated in every corner of the internet – on MySpace pages in the 2000s and Tumblr sites in the 2010s – becoming ubiquitous enough that its very pronunciation was up for hot debate, though Wilhite himself confirmed that it’s pronounced “JIF” with a soft “G.”
Wilhite received a lifetime achievement award from the Webby Awards in 2013, and today, GIFs continue to play a significant role in digital culture.
Related: How Do You Pronounce GIF? It Depends on Where You Live.
Jason Reed, the art director at the Daily Dot, told NPR via the Signal messaging service, “Without the .gif, the internet as we know it would be a different place. It’s a tight medium that you can learn alot about storytelling within, especially tuned for the attention span of the internet. “
In response to Wilhite’s passing, Twitter users flooded the platform with GIF tributes to the man who started it all.
Users honored Wilhite with massive GIF compilations.
– Dan Linden (@DanLinden) March 24, 2022
Others stressed the accurate pronunciation of “GIF,” quoting Wilhite’s Webby’s acceptance speech.
– Anjee W (@Anjeew) March 24, 2022
Though others continued to stir the pot.
– Nicholas Smith (@realnickelass) March 24, 2022
Some users got particularly creative with artisitic renditions of the beloved programmer.
– VINCE VAN (@VinceJVan) March 23, 2022
While others put together dazzling montages.
– Dr.Satoshi (@wedissectstuffs) March 24, 2022
Some admitted that it took Wilhite’s passing to put a name to inventor behind the technology that had changed so many lives.
Today I learned the death of the inventor of the Graphic Interchange Format, better known as #POISON (pronounced soft «G»).
It took his death for me to learn his name. What a shame.
Thank you #StephenWilhite for making our hard lives less burdensome and more entertaining. #RIP pic.twitter.com/QLeg7HWYc2
– David Navarro (@ 12SDN91) March 24, 2022
And still others called for users to post their favorite GIFs in honor of the creator.
– Mike Kakuk (@ radiomike519) March 23, 2022