Inventor of GIF Computer Imagery Has Died at Age 74


Stephen Wilhite receiving his Webby lifetime achievement award in May 2013 for inventing the GIF.



Photo:

Associated Press

Stephen Wilhite

was merely trying to solve a technical problem when he invented the GIF, or graphics interchange format, in 1987. As a programmer at the computer-services firm CompuServe, he was seeking a way for users of incompatible computers to share graphics files.

The first GIF he created was unspectacular—a picture of an airplane. Only much later was the technology adapted for the brief, looping animations that jazz up social-media postings.

Mr. Wilhite, who died March 14 of Covid-19 at the age of 74, “never got 1 cent” out of his invention, said his wife, Kathaleen Wilhite. Nor, she said, did he complain about not making a fortune: “He was just so proud that he had done that.”

He did win a Webby lifetime achievement award in 2013 for inventing the GIF. At the insistence of his wife, he rented a tuxedo for the ceremony. He used the occasion to inform the world that GIF is pronounced like Jif, the peanut butter brand. Mr. Wilhite’s favorite GIF was a classic featuring a dancing baby.

Around the age of 51, he retired early after suffering a stroke that made it difficult for him to speak clearly. He enjoyed camping and tinkering with a model train layout that filled a 170-square-foot room in his home in Milford, Ohio.

Stephen Earl Wilhite was born March 3, 1948, and grew up in West Chester, Ohio, near Cincinnati. His father worked in a factory, and his mother was a nurse. He attended Ohio State University on a scholarship.

Survivors include his wife, a son from an earlier marriage and four sisters. He met Kathaleen Bauer through an internet dating service in 2009. Their first date was at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. They married about a year later.

Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected]

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Appeared in the March 26, 2022, print edition as ‘GIF Inventor Began With Modest Aim.’



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