The Unforgettable Legacy of Stephen Wilhite, Creator of the GIF

An image of Stephen Wilhite after winning his Webby Award.

Stephen Lovekin with Getty Images

An image of Stephen Wilhite after winning his Webby Award.

Chase Kim, Photojournalist

On March 14, Steve Wilhite passed away at the age of 74. After being hospitalized with COVID-19 just two weeks prior, he went into a coma as his condition worsened.

He leaves behind his loving family and his greatest achievement: the GIF.

Working for CompuServe in the 1980s, he invented the GIF as an efficient way to send high-resolution photos without loss of quality in a time where internet speeds were sluggish and the only available image formats were far too large to be manageable. The company released the format in 1987. 

It was perfect. According to Sandy Trevor, the former leader of the CompuServe’s GIF team, “If you want lossless, compressed graphics, there is nothing better than GIF.” The compressed file size could be sent with relative quickness through the slow internet of the day, but could still support other features, like 8-bit color.

Animation, though, was a feature not yet released. It would come later–on June 15, 1987–that an enhanced version called 87a allowed GIFs to be animated. The compact size of GIFs made them ideal for the 90s, and their quick, looping animations made them useful as little “Under Construction” messages on websites or other signs. 

However, the GIF “boom” of the 1990s eventually wore out as they were replaced with other forms of even more efficient file transfer. GIFs were no longer the top dogs in a world cluttered with hundreds of new file formats. That is–until social media came along.

The rest is history.

With the rise of social media, texting, and fast internet speeds, GIFs were transformed from a method of efficient image sharing to efficient sharing of emotions. Certain GIFs have become iconic, reaching viral, easily recognizable statuses (dancing baby, banana). GIFs brought the perfect medium for expression through their short, loopable little snippets of reactions.

In fact, the Internet just wouldn’t be the same without GIFs. I’d even go as far to say that texting and our means of communication wouldn’t be the same. 

These little bits of emotion bring joy, which is what I’m getting at here. A good GIF has the power to comfort, cheer somebody up, and make them laugh. That incredible power is what makes GIFs so special – and what means that they won’t be going away any time soon.

He was and always will be an important part of the internet.”

— Derek Moore (9)

And we have Wilhite to thank for that. As Derek Moore (9) said, “He was and always will be an important part of the internet.”

Thank you, Mr. Wilhite. Thank you for your incredible life and contributions to the wonderful world of the Internet.