Stephen Wilhite: computer programmer who gave the world gifs
Stephen Wilhite, a computer programmer who invented the gif, the humble but versatile file format that has become a mainstay of the internet, helping people share viral graphics, photographs and animations – including a personal favorite de Wilhite, a looping image of a dancing baby – died aged 74.
Wilhite was working at CompuServe, America’s first major online service provider, when he created the graphics interchange format (gif) in 1987, a few years before the advent of the World Wide Web. The company’s CTO, Alexander “Sandy” Trevor, hired him to create an image file format that used lossless compression and could run on a range of computer systems, allowing users to share photos, graphics stock exchanges, weather maps and other files across the slow communication lines of the dial-up era, whether they are using an Apple, Atari, Commodore, IBM or Tandy computer.
Within about a month, Wilhite had created the first gif, a photo of an airplane. Today, the file format is typically used for videos or looping animations, which populate social media and serve as shorthand for pop culture – a quick, wordless way to express emotions like joy (Brad Pitt dancing in Burn after reading), embarrassment (Homer Simpson retreating backwards into a hedge), excitement (Michael Jackson eating popcorn) or approval (a bearded Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnsonnodding with a smile as the camera zooms in).
The gif “caught pretty quickly with the developers,” Trevor said, adding that Wilhite “was the architect of the gif, there’s no doubt about it.” He said that although the file format was not originally created for animation, Wilhite designed the gif in such a way that it could be stretched and stretched, helping to turn it into a animated medium. The format endured even after the creation of competitors such as PNG, and became ubiquitous with the advent of Netscape and other Internet browsers, with “under construction” gifs populating new websites and animated gifs appearing on Myspace pages in the early 2000s.
In 2012, when Oxford Dictionaries named gif the American Word of the Year, the term was being used as a verb, not just a noun. The word had also sparked heated debate over its pronunciation, which the magazine Mother Jones once described as “the most absurd religious war in geek history”: was it a soft g like “jif”? Or a hard g, as in “gift”?
Wilhite weighed in on the matter in 2013, shortly before receiving a Lifetime Achievement Webby Award for his invention. “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” he said. The New York Times. “They’re wrong. It’s a soft ‘g’, pronounced ‘jif’. End of story.”
Stephen Earl Wilhite was born in West Chester Township, Ohio on March 3, 1948. At age 17, he was shot in the face during a Civil War raid reenactment at a sesquicentennial celebration of the city, where an actor apparently used a real bullet instead. of a blank cartridge. Wilhite was hospitalized for about six weeks, but later graduated from high school as one of the state’s “top 10 science students,” according to an Associated Press report on his recovery.
He studied computer science and engineering at Ohio State University before joining CompuServe, shortly after the company was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969. In addition to creating the gif, he developed compilers and designed the architecture for the company’s client-server environment, which Trevor described as something of a precursor to web browsers. “Personally, I think that was his greatest achievement,” he said.
In addition to his wife of 12 years, Kathaleen, survivors include a son from a previous marriage that ended in divorce; four stepchildren; four sisters; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Wilhite remained with CompuServe after the sale of its online services arm to AOL, and retired after suffering a stroke in 2000. He kept busy by taking multi-week trips and expanding his collection of model trains, which took up an entire room at the country house he built in Milford, Ohio. For years he also rode dirt bikes, sometimes scaring friends who saw him racing over dirt hills and trails.
As Trevor said, Wilhite once enjoyed climbing a steep hill near Mansfield, Ohio, where he flew over the top and descended the other side. On one such hike, he decided to stop at the top rather than continue, only to realize as he braked that the other side of the hill had been “dug out,” as he put it. Trevor. “If he had continued he would have gone over the edge and there would have been no gif.”
Stephen Wilhite, computer scientist, born March 3, 1948, died March 14, 2022
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