Stephen Wilhite, creator of GIF, dies of COVID-19 at 74

FILE - Steve Wilhite, inventor of the GIF file, poses with an award backstage at the 17th Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on May 21, 2013 in New York City. (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for The Webby Awards)

Stephen Wilhite, the creator of the massively popular GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) and chief architect of America Online, died of COVID-19 at the age of 74 on March 14, according to The Verge. 

Wilhite was an avid camper and loved to travel, according to his obituary. He is survived by his wife, Kathleen, stepchildren Rick Groves, Robin Landrum, Renee Bennett, Rebecca Boaz and biological son, David. 

He is also survived by 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and four sisters. 

"Even with all his accomplishments, he remained a very humble, kind, and good man," his obituary said. 

Wilhite is famously known for inventing the GIF while working at CompuServe in 1987, according to Smithsonian Magazine. 

CompuServe allowed users to access the internet by providing products and services either at home or at work, according to the company’s website. It was acquired by AOL in 1998 and was shut down in 2009, according to NPR. 

Today, the GIF is often used to express emotion, wish someone a happy birthday, or to even just leave an animated comment on someone’s social media account. 

But it wasn’t always used as a source of light-hearted fun, in fact, GIFs were originally created to share "high-quality, high-resolution graphics to be displayed on a variety of graphics hardware and is intended as an exchange and display mechanism for graphics images," according to CompuServe. 

"He invented GIF all by himself — he actually did that at home and brought it into work after he perfected it," Kathaleen, Wilhite’s wife, told The Verge. "He would figure out everything privately in his head and then go to town programming it on the computer." 

In 2013, Wilhite won the Lifetime Achievement Webby Award for creating the GIF. 

"The GIF has had an immeasurable impact on the way users interface with the Web and how designers and developers present visual data and imagery," according to the Webby Awards website. 

That same year, Wilhite confirmed the proper pronunciation of GIF, which had been a long-standing debate: Is it a soft "G" or a hard "G?" 

Wilhite told The New York Times that GIF is in fact pronounced with a soft "G" like the peanut butter brand, Jif.  

"The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations," Wilhite told The Times during a 2013 interview. "They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story." 

This story was reported out of Los Angeles.