Stephen E. Wilhite, a computer programmer who was best known for inventing the GIF, the looping animations that became a universal language for conveying humor, sarcasm and angst on social media and in instant messages, died in Cincinnati on March 14. He was 74.
His death, at a hospital, was confirmed on Thursday by his wife, Kathaleen Wilhite, who said that the cause was complications of Covid-19.
In 1987, while Mr. Wilhite was working for CompuServe, the nation’s first online service, he led a team of engineers who revolutionized how people could share video clips on the internet. They called the format they created a GIF, short for graphics interchange format, a type of compressed image file with an ease of use that made it enduring.
The technology’s appeal expanded from computers to smartphones, giving the famous and the not-so-famous the ability to share GIFs on platforms like Twitter and Facebook and eventually to create their own loops. It inspired the famous “dancing baby” GIF in 1996 and popular apps like Giphy.
“I saw the format I wanted in my head and then I started programming,” Mr. Wilhite told The New York Times in 2013.
That year, Mr. Wilhite, who was also a former chief architect for America Online, received a lifetime achievement award at the Webby Awards.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Wilhite’s survivors include a son, David Wilhite; his stepchildren Rick Groves, Robin Landrum, Renee Bennett and Rebecca Boaz; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In 2012, Oxford American Dictionaries recognized GIF as its “word of the year.”
While the usefulness of Mr. Wilhite’s innovation was undisputed, the pronunciation of “GIF” was a frequent subject of debate. Was it pronounced with a hard G sound or a soft one?
“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft G, pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”