American computer scientist, Stephen Earl Wilhite, sadly passed away last week from COVID-19 on 14 March, aged 74. He was known for being the engineering lead on the team that adapted the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) into what we now use as the language of the internet.
During the Eighties, Wilhite worked for software company and online service provider CompuServe. It was here that he led a team in the development of what we're familiar with today as a GIF – though when first invented it had a slightly different purpose than memes and internet humor.
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The internet in those days was accessed via telephone modems, which meant that phone calls via a landline, and accessing the web online at the same time, simply wasn't possible.
GIFs were used during the late Eighties as a way of distributing high-quality, high-res graphics in color, as efficiently as possible and without taking up too much memory. Lossless and compressed computer graphics were ideal for combating the agonizingly slow internet connections a time when internet speeds were sluggish and temperamental.
Wilhite's wife, Kathaleen, when speaking to The Verge, shared that her husband invented the GIF all by himself. "He actually did that at home and brought it into work after he perfected it,” she said. “He would figure out everything privately in his head and then go to town programming it on the computer.”
Winning a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions, Wilhite had only five words to say as part of his acceptance speech when attending the 17th Annual Webby Awards: "It's pronounced 'jif' not 'gif'". What an amazing way to an accept an award, and simultaneously add fuel to the fire of the ongoing internet debate of how the term should be pronounced..
In 2013, Wilhite told The New York Times, “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations. They are wrong. It is a soft ‘g,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.” While many still debate the pronunciation to this day, I stand by GIF with a hard G, personally. It feels silly to say it the way that Wilhite intended, no disrespect to Mr Wilhite or his world-changing invention.
Wilhite retired around the early 2000s after CompuServe was absorbed by AOL, and according to Kathaleen they spent time together traveling, camping, and building model trains in his basement. His obituary page notes that “even with all his accomplishments, he remained a very humble, kind, and good man.”
What a phenomenal man! Rest in peace Stephen Wilhite, and thank you for the GIFs.