Stephen Wilhite revolutionized internet culture by bringing still images to life. The computer programmer invented the Graphics Interchange Format, otherwise known as the GIF, in 1987. But after a sudden case of COVID-19, the father of GIF died on March 14 in his hometown of Milford, Ohio.
“It came on suddenly. He woke up one morning and he said, ‘Honey, I don’t feel good. I don’t feel good at all,’” his wife Kathaleen Wilhite told NPR on Wednesday. The couple was retired and had plans to take their new camper on the road soon. But then Steve woke up ill on March 1. “He was running a fever, throwing up so badly,” Kathaleen said. “And then the next day he started coughing badly.”
Though Kathaleen had also contracted the virus, she took her husband to the hospital where he was soon placed in intensive care. Because of her own illness, she could not be at his side in the hospital until she tested negative on March 10.
Then on March 14, she received an urgent call from the hospital. “They said, ‘Mrs. Wilhite, you need to get here right away,’” she told NPR. “‘He has turned to the worse, and you need to come.’”
Wilhite died later that day at the age of 74. It has not been reported whether or not he was vaccinated.
Before retiring in 2001, the programmer worked at CompuServe where he tinkered to create the file format that supports both still and moving images. The cultural impact of his invention was honoured in 2012 when the Oxford Dictionary picked “GIF” as its word of the year.
His obituary noted that he was also awarded a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 for his revolutionary development. To accept the award, he played a GIF and blew everyone’s minds by revealing that the correct pronunciation of the word was “Jif” rather than “GIF” with a hard “g.”
“He was probably one of the kindest, humble men you’ve ever met,” his wife told NPR. “Our family loved him, you know—people loved him and respected his work, and that would mean more to him than anything is how they respected what he did.”