Stephen E. Wilhite, the computer programmer best known for inventing the GIF, the looping animation format that became a universal language for conveying humor, sarcasm and angst on social media and in instant messages, died on March 14 in Cincinnati. He was 74.
His death, at a hospital, was confirmed on Thursday by his wife, Kathaleen Wilhite. She said the cause was complications of Covid-19.
In 1987, while Mr. Wilhite was working for CompuServe, the nation’s first online service, he led a team of engineers who revolutionized how people could share video clips on the internet. The format they created was a type of compressed image file with an ease of use that made it enduring. They called it a GIF, short for graphics interchange format.
The technology’s appeal expanded from computers to smartphones, giving the famous and the not-so-famous the ability to share GIFs on platforms like Twitter and Facebook and eventually to create their own loops. The technology inspired the famous “dancing baby” GIF in 1996, which Mr. Wilhite cited as one of his favorites, as well as popular apps like Giphy.
Tributes to Mr. Wilhite spread online after his death was reported — many of them, fittingly, in the form of GIFs.
The Police Department in Eau Claire, Wis., honored Mr. Wilhite on its official Twitter account on Thursday, sharing a GIF of Captain America saluting. The Bengaluru Football Club in India encouraged its followers on Twitter to share GIFs in tribute and offered one of its own: an animated portrait of Mr. Wilhite.
Stephen Earl Wilhite was born in West Chester, Ohio, on March 3, 1948. His father, Clarence Earl Wilhite, was a factory worker; his mother, Anna Lou (Dorsey) Wilhite, was a nurse.
Later in life, Mr. Wilhite’s wife said, he captured the history of his invention in a three-page document that he shared with his children and grandchildren.
When one of his granddaughters, Kylie, told her computer teacher that her grandfather had invented the GIF, the teacher did not believe her, Ms. Wilhite said. This prompted Mr. Wilhite to write a letter to the teacher to confirm the story. “Then he signed it Steve Wilhite, and he said, ‘Google it,’”
Mr. Wilhite retired at 51 after having a stroke, but he kept busy using his computer programming skills to augment his model railroad. That hobby, his wife said, was supposed to be confined to the basement of his home but spilled into other rooms, with Mr. Wilhite building model-train bridges in his upstairs office.
Ms. Wilhite said that her husband also loved to spend time outdoors, and that they went on many camping trips with her son Rick, who she said was one of Mr. Wilhite’s “best buddies.”
They traveled from their home in Milford, Ohio, to the tip of Florida and to the Grand Canyon, she said. “Steve loved the pine trees in the north, and I love the ocean, so that gave us a big span.”.
The couple married in 2010, when they were both in their 60s. Ms. Wilhite said their first date was at a Cracker Barrel the year before they married.
“We were together every day from that day,” she said. “We might have met later in life, but we sure made up for it.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Wilhite’s survivors include a son, David Wilhite; his stepchildren, Rick Groves, Robin Landrum, Renee Bennett and Rebecca Boaz; 11 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and four sisters. A previous marriage ended in divorce.
Mr. Wilhite tested positive for Covid-19 on March 1 and was hospitalized a few days later, according to Ms. Wilhite, who also contracted Covid-19 but had less severe symptoms. She said that the doctor told her that the virus attacked Mr. Wilhite’s right lung, which had been damaged from the stroke.
In 2012, Oxford American Dictionaries recognized GIF as its “word of the year.”
While the usefulness of Mr. Wilhite’s innovation was undisputed, the pronunciation of “GIF” was a frequent subject of debate — and even the subject of a Final Jeopardy answer. Was it pronounced with a hard G sound or a soft one?
“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite told The Times in 2013. “They are wrong. It is a soft G, pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”