What would the internet be like today if it weren’t for animated GIFs? Honestly, it’d probably be a lot less cringey and annoying, but it’s still sad to report that Stephen Wilhite, the man responsible for developing the looping, animated image format, has died at the age of 74. Kathaleen, Wilhite’s wife, told CNN in a statement that her husband passed on March 14 due to complications with COVID-19. Wilhite already had a weakened right lung due to a stroke from a few years ago.
The first-ever GIF that Wilhite created was of a flying jet, which can be seen in its full glory below. (By the way, it’s supposed to be pronounced “JIF,” not “GIF.”)
Stephen Wilhite, who created GIFs, dies at 74 (CNN)
In the 1980s, Wilhite, then a developer at online service provider CompuServe, and his team were tasked with overcoming slow dial-up speeds, incompatible computer systems and images that were too large to send to another user efficiently, especially color images, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
In 1987, Wilhite figured out how to compress images so they wouldn’t lose their sharpness, would load quickly and could appear on any computer — and the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF, was born.
The very first GIF was of a clip art airplane soaring through a pixelated sky.
Initially, GIFs were still images. But Wilhite had the foresight to make GIFs “extensible,” so developers across the web could add custom information to their own GIFs, Wired reported in 2017. Animated GIFs became popular beginning in 1995 — and from there, GIFs took on a life of their own.