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Stephen Wilhite’s GIF to us all

The late computer scientist didn’t intend to help us maintain closer bonds with colleagues during lockdown – but we should thank him anyway

Ironically, there aren’t many GIFs that feature the late Stephen Wilhite, the inventor of the technology that enables them. That may soon change following the news that he sadly passed last week, at the age of 74.

The Graphical Interchange Format (GIF) is one of the few reasons you can still enjoy social media in 2022. Without funny cat GIFs or iconic memes of Leonardo di Caprio, platforms like Twitter would more closely resemble the actual hellscapes people claim they are. 

What’s more, in this stressful always-online world of instant communication, the GIF offers quick, compact ice breakers to help you stay in touch with friends and family. Or, like me, it even allows you to continue to maintain close bonds with colleagues while working from home. I shudder to think what the last two years would’ve been like had I not been able to reply on Slack using the ever-useful Giphy shortcut. 

Wilhite’s obituary page is filled with similar sentiments from mourners thanking him for his contribution to the internet, but it’s fair to say he wasn’t that well known for his work on the GIF. Part of the reason for this might be due to the fact he wasn’t particularly well known at all, but also because what we’ve come to know today as a ‘GIF’ is far removed from its original purpose, when Wilhite helped to create it in the 1980s. 

The first GIF – an animated plane – was shared by CompuServe on 15 June 1987, as a compressed animation using time delays. Its conception had nothing to do with 'lols on the web', rather it was more a case of finding ways to distribute high-resolution coloured graphics at a time when internet speeds were snail-like. This even predates the dial-up modems of the 90s which is very hard to imagine today. Any of our most popular GIFs would’ve taken years to transfer had they been around in 1987. Wilhite would’ve likely seen the upload through to the end, though, going by his wife’s tribute.

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

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Wilhite stayed with CompuServe throughout the 90s before a stroke forced him into retirement. His invention, however, would evolve far beyond its purpose and leave him with an unintended legacy. This came about with two key moments in the history of the GIF that both make it what it is today and also enable it to be so widely used for free. The first is the fact that CompuServe was taken over by AOL in 1998 and it left the patents for GIF to expire, which is why the format is open to the public. The other moment is Netscape adding GIFs to its browser with an animation loop. This, according to Wilhite himself, is the reason the GIF has become what it has. 

Almost 25 years later, GIF is now outliving its creator as one of the best tools available on modern communications and collaborations platforms, like Slack or even Microsoft Teams. Not only are we using GIFs in ways Wilhite never intended, however, we’ve also been saying it incorrectly. He actually wanted you to pronounce it ‘JIF’, according to an interview he gave the New York Times in 2013. “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” he said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘JIF.’ End of story.”

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