Even if you’ve never heard of Steve Wilhite, the time you’ve spent staring at the tech-powered infographic he created can be incalculable.
Wilhite, who died of complications from COVID-19 at age 74 on March 14, is the man who gave us a type of graphics file called Graphics Interchange Format, better known as GIF. Used today primarily to display brief silent animation loops or videos far from HD, GIFs are the visual of the internet. lingua franca-and such a familiar medium much of the conversation on Twitter consists of GIFs rather than words.
Wilhite didn’t invent the GIF format to launch a billion memes. It was 1987, and he was a software engineer at CompuServthe most important online service until an upstart called America Online took off in the 1990s. And he developed the format in response to a request from CompuServe director Alexander “Sandy” Trevor.
(Trevor’s most legendary contribution to CompuServe was not the instigation of the GIF: he also invented the service. CB simulator service-the first mainstream chat rooms and one of the first manifestations of social networking, period. This one coded itself as a weekend project in 1980.)
GIF originated because online services such as CompuServe were becoming more graphic, but computer manufacturers of the day, such as Apple, Commodore, and IBM, all had their own proprietary image types. “We didn’t want to have to display images in 79 different formats,” says Trevor. CompuServe needed a universal graphics format.
Even though the World Wide Web and digital cameras were still in the future, work was already underway on the image format known as JPEG. But it wasn’t optimized for CompuServe’s needs: for example, stock charts and weather charts weren’t displayed cleanly. So Trevor asked Wilhite to create an image file type that looked good and downloaded quickly at a time when a 2400-bit-per-second dial-up modem was considered scorching.
While reading a technical journal, Wilhite came across a discussion of an efficient compression technique known as LZW to its creators – Abraham Limpel, Jacob Ziv and Terry Welch. It turned out to be an ideal base for what CompuServe was trying to build, and allowed the GIF to pack a lot of image information into as few bytes as possible. (Much later, computer giant Unisys, which took out a patent for LZW, threatened companies using it with a lawsuit, leading to a license agreement with CompuServe and the creation of the patent-free PNG image format.)
GIF officially launched on June 15, 1987. “It met my requirements and proved extremely useful for CompuServe,” says Trevor. The technology was essential for CompuServe Information Manager (CIM), the more visual version of the software that replaced the service’s original text-based interface. GIF was also versatile, providing the ability to store multiple images which made it handy for creating mini-movies as well as static images. And it spread beyond CompuServe, appearing in Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, and later in Netscape Navigator. This latest browser gave GIFs the ability to run in an infinite loop, a crucial feature that only added to their hypnotic quality. Seeing cartoon hamsters dancing for a split second isn’t a great cry, but watch them shake their boots non-stop was just one of the many cultural moments GIFs gave us.
As the web got more sophisticated, GIFs felt like an anachronism for a while. But as Aja Romano documented in a great year 2017 Voice characteristic, the combination of the patents that caused the expiration of the GIF and the arrival of services such as Reddit, Twitter and Tumblr gave the format a second wind. The technical limitations imposed on the GIF by its 1980s origins – such as its 256-color palette – have become part of its enduring charm.
Almost a quarter of the way into the 21st century, broadband connections allow us to feast on all the images our eyeballs can handle without obsessing over file size, but GIFs have never gone away. Fortunes were created thanks to the brainchild of Wilhite – or at least Giphy, a huge repository of GIFs, cost $400 million when Facebook bought it in 2020. GIF support is still something a lot of people want, and the world’s biggest online services find it worth adding.
In 2013, the Webby Awards honored Wilhite with his lifetime achievement award, introduced to him, appropriately enough, by Tumblr founder David Karp. But Trevor is quick to point out that Wilhite was far from a one-shot wonder. “Steve was a software genius,” he says. “He’s best known for his role in creating GIFs, but that was actually one of his lesser accomplishments.” By the time Wilhite came up with GIF, he had already single-handedly written versions of the Fortran and BASIC programming languages for CompuServe, as well as a database management system. He then developed the service’s “Host Micro Interface” protocol, which allows CIM software to communicate with CompuServe’s mainframe computers regardless of the computing platform a customer is using, enabling “essentially a graphical browser,” says Trevor.
“Steve accomplished all of this despite a speech impediment, which bothered him more than it held him back,” adds Trevor.
Oh, and one more thing about GIF: how do you pronounce it? Does it start with a soft g or a hard g? This question inspired heated debate for decades, and probably always will be. But let the record show that Wilhite and Trevor – the two guys who would know best – always pronounced it with a soft g, like peanut butter Jif. In fact, Wilhite said the hint was intentional, leading to a saying at CompuServe referencing Jif’s TV commercials: “Demanding developers choose GIF.” To an extent that no one could have predicted in 1987, they still do.