Steve Wilhite Dies: Beloved Inventor Of The GIF Was 74

Steve Wilhite
Steve Wilhite Chris Cone/Jif via AP Images

The man who helped launch a million memes has died.

Steve Wilhite, who is credited with inventing the GIF file format, which makes possible the proliferation of funny Simpsons and SpongeBob memes across the internet, died on March 14 due to complications from Covid. His wife Kathaleen announced the news to NPR.

The GIF or “Graphic Interchange Format,” according to a 1987 document, “allows high-quality, high-resolution graphics to be displayed on a variety of graphics hardware and is intended as an exchange and display mechanism for graphics images.”

Those attributes were a boon in the early, dial-up days of the internet, when images could take forever to load. They still matter today in an era of quick-twitch social media posts and cell phones. It also helps that they allow users to have fun.

Wilhite and his team at CompuServe created the the GIF image file format from the earlier Unisys-owned LZW algorithm in 1987. It went on to become the most popular image format on the internet. But its success was not without controversy.

A debate has raged for decades over the proper pronunciation of the acronym: Is it “jif” or “gif,” Wilhite was often asked.

“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Wilhite told the New York Times. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G’, pronounced ‘jif’. End of story.” The intended pronunciation was meant to playfully echo the name of the beloved peanut butter brand, Jif.

Wilhite worked at CompuServe even after it was acquired by America Online. He retired as Chief Architect of AOL in 2001 after a stroke. He received the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.

Wilhite is survived by his wife Kathaleen, stepchildren Rick Groves, Robin Landrum, Renee (Daniel) Bennett, Rebecca (Brent) Boaz, and son David Wilhite, 11 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren.

Services were held earlier this week in Milford, OH.

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