On the 1st of March 2022, beloved creator of the GIF file format, Steve Wilhite contracted COVID-19.
‘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”. And he was running a fever, throwing up so badly. And then the next day, he started coughing badly,’ Kathaleen Wilhite, Steve’s wife told NPR in a phone interview.
Kathaleen, also down with COVID-19, had Steve taken to a hospital close to their home in Milford, Ohio where he was placed in intensive care. They couldn’t visit or see each other because of her diagnosis. Steve was finally put into a coma. Kathaleen recovered and tested negative on March 10, so she went to be by his bedside. On March 14th, she got a call from the hospital.
‘They said, “Mrs. Wilhite, you need to get here right away”, that “he has turned to the worse, and you need to come,’” Kathaleen said.
Steve passed away from complications from the dreaded virus shortly after her arrival. He was 74.
‘It’s just so bad. It’s just so tragic,’ said Kathaleen.
According to Kathaleen, in the weeks leading to March, Steve spent his time in his model-train room messing around with his creations and computer programming. It was these same activities that led to the creation of the GIF file format while he was at CompuServe in 1987.
‘I think the first GIF was a picture of a plane. It was a long time ago,’ Steve said to the Daily Dot in a Facebook interview in May 2012.
The GIF compressed format allowed the transfer of images of slow modem connections of the 1980s more efficiently. The animation feature was included in the updated version of the file format.
Steve worked at the company until 2001, where he experienced a stroke before retiring.
In the 2000s, Myspace accounts made use of buttons that glittered on a loop. In the 2010s, Tumblr users used the GIF file format to create reactions and memes. In 2013, Wilhite was honored by the Webby Awards with a lifetime achievement award. He used a GIF in place of an acceptance speech, showing that it was pronounced as ‘jif’, not ‘gif’.
‘Without the .gif, the internet as we know it would be a different place,’ said Jason Reed, the art director of the Daily Dot. ‘It’s a tight medium that you can learn a lot about storytelling within, especially tuned for the attention span of the internet.’
‘I want to offer my sincerest condolences to Stephen Wilhite’s family. It is incredibly saddening to hear. Forever in his debt; it was by the power of his GIF codec that I traversed across the United States of America, smoked drugs with celebrities, and created friendships with countless amounts of people along the way. Even to this day, GIFs help put food on the table for my family, and for that, I will always be eternally grateful to Stephen Wilhite,’ said Jimmy McCain.
McCain is the co-founder of ‘Mr. GIF,’ an artist collective known for creating GIFs.
The display of love and condolences online has greatly comforted Kathaleen and her family.
‘He was probably one of the kindest, humble men you’ve ever met,’ she said. ‘I’ve been reading about [the responses online] all afternoon, and I can’t even tell you how it comforts you. Not only I loved him, you know. Our family loved him— people loved him and respected his work, and that would mean more to him than anything is how they respected what he did… I miss him more than anyone could imagine,’
Rest in peace, Steve Wilhite.
By Marvellous Iwendi.