In this insight, we look at how Stephen Wilhite invented the GIF file, and how his invention has endured while the Internet has undergone vast changes. 

Who Was Stephen Wilhite?

Stephen Wilhite is regarded as one of the inventors who changed the face of the Internet. Wilhite worked at CompuServe in the 1980s. Founded in 1969, Ohio-based CompuServe was the first major online service provider in the US and is the oldest of the Big Three information services (along with AOL and Prodigy).

Stephen Wilhite worked as part of a team at CompuServe managed by former chief technical officer Alexander “Sandy” Trevor, but Stephen Wilhite invented the GIF by himself, at home, and then brought the new file format into CompuServe to be worked on by the team. Stephen Wilhite retired in 2000 and is reported to have spent much of his time travelling, camping, and building model trains in his basement.

In 2013, Stephen Wilhite was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Webby Awards in New York for the invention of the GIF and his contribution to internet culture.

Died 14th March, 2022

Sadly, Stephen Wilhite died of Covid on the 14th March, just after his 74th birthday, leaving a wife, 4 step-children, a son, 11 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren.

What Is A Gif?

Graphics interchange format, commonly known is GIF (pronounced ‘jiff’, according to Wilhite) is a type of compressed file for images. Invented by Wilhite in 1987, while he was at CompuServe, a GIF allowed image transfers across the slow modem connections that were available at the time. GIFs allowed for colour, replacing the black-and-white run-length encoding format (RLE), and offered lossless compression, i.e. no degradation of pixels to make the image smaller, as with JPG files. GIFs are one of the oldest images used online and the first GIF created is thought to be a clip art picture of an aeroplane in the sky.

Extensible – Animated

Wilhite is also credited with having the foresight to make GIFs extensible, enabling developers to add their own custom information and leading to the creation of animated GIFs in 1995. The Netscape Navigator browser is often credited with helping to boost the popularity of GIFs as it supported the .GIF format, including animated GIFs.

Although, after a relatively brief period of popularity, GIFs were largely phased out in favour of other compressed file formats for static pictures. However, GIFs remained, largely because, unlike other formats, they provided a fast, easy way to create animated images.

Popularity Again

Animated GIFs have had a resurgence in popularity in recent years thanks to users on platforms like 4chan and Reddit creating inventive and funny ‘memes’ (from the Greek word for “imitated”) using the animated GIF format. These files have also been widely shared and popularised through other big social medial platforms. GIFs have also been used recently as a compact, universally accepted form of low-fidelity video.

It has been reported that Wilhite’s favourite was the first popular digital meme, ‘the dancing baby’ from 1996.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Time has proven the value of the invention of the GIF which has stayed around and fulfilled a continuing need and filled a gap in an area which has seen massive, fast, and continuous changes – the Web.

GIFs have evolved to enable creativity expression (memes), keeping them relevant, and it’s likely that they’ll be around a lot longer yet. It’s amazing that one man could simply invent this type of file at home, and it was truly an innovation that has been valuable around the world. With the death of Stephen Wilhite, the world has lost another of the great Internet pioneers.

By Mike Knight

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