Stephen Wilhite, inventor of the GIF, a building block of social media, dies at 74

A man in a tuxedo walks offstage holding a cylindrical-shaped award
Stephen Wilhite accepting his Webby lifetime achievement award in 2013.
(Jane Kratochvil/Associated Press)

Stephen Wilhite, the inventor of the internet-popular short-video format the GIF, has died at 74.

Wilhite died of complications from COVID-19 on March 14, his wife, Kathaleen, said Thursday.

An Ohio native who lived in the Cincinnati suburb of Milford, Wilhite, won a Webby lifetime achievement award in 2013 for inventing the GIF, which decades after its creation became omnipresent in memes and on social media, often used as a cheeky representation of a cultural moment.


Wilhite was working at CompuServe in 1987 when he invented the GIF.

“I saw the format I wanted in my head and then I started programming,” he told the New York Times in 2013, saying the first image was an airplane and insisting that the file had only one pronunciation, with a soft “G,” like Jif peanut butter. Those using the hard “G,” as in “got” or “given,” “are wrong,” he said. “End of story.”

GIF creator settles it, says it’s pronounced like the peanut butter

May 22, 2013

In that interview, he said the ‘90s-era dancing baby GIF was a personal favorite.

“There’s way more to him than inventing GIF,” Kathaleen Wilhite said of her husband, who loved model trains and had a room dedicated to them in the basement of their house with “enormous train tracks,” as well as taking camping trips. Still, even after he retired in 2001, “he never stopped programming,” she said.