GIF creator Steve Wilhite dies after contracting COVID : NPR
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Steve Wilhite and his wife, Kathaleen Wilhite, had just purchased a new truck and RV in hopes of camping in some of their favorite places in Tennessee, Kentucky and Michigan when everything suddenly changed.
On March 1, Steve Wilhite, the beloved creator of the GIF file format, contracted COVID-19.
“It happened suddenly. He woke up one morning and he said, ‘Honey, I don’t feel well. I don’t feel well at all.’ And he had a fever, he was throwing up so much. And then the next day he started coughing a lot,” Kathaleen Wilhite told NPR by phone Wednesday night.
Kathaleen, who had also contracted COVID-19, had Steve taken to a hospital near their home in Milford, Ohio, where he was treated with antibiotics before being placed in intensive care. The couple couldn’t see each other because of their diagnosis, she said. Steve was eventually placed in a coma. Kathaleen tested negative on or around March 10 and was able to be at her bedside, she said. Then she received a call on March 14 from the hospital.
“They said, ‘Ms. Wilhite, you need to come here right away,’ that he got worse and you need to come,” Kathaleen said, recalling the conversation.
Shortly after arriving, Steve died of complications from COVID-19, Kathaleen said. He was 74 years old.
“It’s so bad. It’s so tragic,” Kathaleen said.
In the weeks leading up to March 1, Kathaleen said, Steve could be found in his model train room tinkering with his designs and computer programming, one of his constants in life, which led to the creation of the GIF file format in 1987 while at CompuServe.
“I think the first GIF was an airplane photo. It was a long time ago,” Steve told the Daily Dot in a rare interview via Facebook in May 2012.
GIF’s compressed format allowed the slow modem connections of the 1980s to transfer images more efficiently. Animation functionality has been added in an updated version of the GIF file format.
Steve remained with the company, working on various systems until 2001, suffering a stroke before retiring.
In the 2000s, Myspace accounts were littered with flickering or looping buttons. Users of the Tumblr website used the medium to create reactions, vignettes, and memes in the 2010s.
In 2013, the Webby Awards presented Wilhite with a lifetime achievement award. He played a GIF as his acceptance speech, which iterated the pronunciation as “jif”, not “gif”.
Today, GIFs are a mainstay of Internet communication.
“Without the .gif, the internet as we know it would be a different place,” Daily Dot art director Jason Reed told NPR via the Signal messaging service. “It’s a narrow medium in which you can learn a lot about storytelling, specially adapted to the attention span of the Internet.”
Jimmy McCain is the co-founder of the artist collective known as Mr. GIF, best known for, well, creating GIFs.
“I want to offer my deepest condolences to the family of Stephen Wilhite. It is incredibly saddening to hear. Still in debt; it was thanks to the power of his GIF codec that I crossed the United States from America, smoked drugs with celebrities, and made friendships with countless people along the way,” McCain told NPR on Instagram. “Even to this day, GIFs help put food on my family’s table, and for that I will always be eternally grateful to Stephen Wilhite.”
The outpouring of love online has been a great comfort to Kathaleen Wilhite and her family.
“He was probably one of the nicest, most humble men you’ve ever met,” she said. “I read about [the responses online] all afternoon, and I can’t even tell you how much that comforts you. Not only did I love him, you know. Our family loved him, you know – people loved him and respected his work, and that would mean more to him than anything, it’s how they respected what he was doing. … I miss him more than anyone could imagine.”