The humble GIF file has been with us for a long time. Sadly, the creator of the GIF, computer scientist Steve Wilhite, passed away in March 2022. In honor of him and his contribution, we hope you enjoy these facts and think about him the next time you fire off an animated GIF in a group chat.
GIF Predates the World Wide Web
From the early days of the web with flashing Under Construction signs on GeoCities websites to Twitter posts today, the GIF seems entirely inseparable from internet experience.
And while the GIF format doesn’t predate the internet itself, it does predate the widespread use of the internet by regular folks and the introduction of the World Wide Web.
The GIF was created in 1987 by a development team at CompuServe, led by Steve Wilhite. Today we have Internet Service Providers (ISPs) but back then we had Online Service Providers (OSPs). These OSPs, the most popular of which were CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL, offered a connection to “online services” in an era before commercial access to the proper internet was available. Users logged in to their respective services to check the news, stocks, exchange emails and messages with other users of their OSP, and otherwise engage in a sort of walled-garden version of the open internet we use now.
If that sounds like ancient history, at least as far as computing goes, it certainly is. And the modem speeds were, compared to today, horse and buggy speed. Wilhite and his team were tasked with creating a fast-loading color image file for Compuserve to display color images quickly for stock tickers and other interfaces. The use of data compression made the GIF speedy, even compared to the uncompressed black and white images in use at the time.
The First GIF Was a Still Image
When it comes to public events like the launch of a product or the filing of a patent, it’s pretty easy to lock in on the very first example of the thing. When it comes to something like hunting down the very first example of a given file format, however, things can get tricky because at the time it might not seem important to preserve such things for history.
We did some deep digging though and we’re quite confident we dug up the first GIF file to show you. In a 2012 interview with Daily Dot, Wilhelm said “I think the first GIF was a picture of a plane, it was a long time ago.”
A lot of publications took that information and ran with it, declaring various animated GIFs of airplanes the very first GIF image. But that’s simply not the case. The first GIFs were not animated. In fact, the first iteration of the GIF didn’t even support animation.
Courtesy of the Internet Archive, you can see copies of CompuServe’s Online Today magazine, published from 1987 to 1996. And in the October 1987 issue what do we find? An article about the exciting new GIF image format, a smiling Wilhite, and a still image of an airplane.
Although it’s impossible to crown that image the airtight undisputed first GIF of all time, the evidence here is solid enough that we’d be comfortable betting a sum of money on it.
Netscape Created Looping Animated GIFs
Shortly after the introduction of the GIF, Wilhite and his team improved on the GIF in 1989 by adding the ability to animate it like a simple and compact slideshow. The original format supported multiple images but the improved format supported delays which allowed for the slideshow effect.
Yet while that’s the technical birth of the animated GIF, it’s not what put animated GIFs on the map. For that, we can thank developers at Netscape Communications Corporation, the company behind the ubiquitous 1990s web browser Netscape Navigator. They modified the GIF to create the loop effect wherein the slideshow repeated continuously.
Netscape Communications Corporation/Versionmuseum.com
Netscape Navigator 2.0, released in 1995, supported this feature and even showcased it right in the browser interface. In the upper right corner of the browser the little Netscape logo—seen above—would become animated, with shooting stars, whenever a web page was loading. From there, animated GIFs proliferated almost instantly across the World Wide Web.
It’s Pronounced With a Soft G
In the headline of the Online Today article highlighted above you see a hint at how GIF was originally pronounced. “Computer Users Choose GIF” is a clear nod to the advertising slogan for JIF peanut butter “Choosey Moms Choose JIF,” and, internally, CompuServe developers would joke “Choosey Developers Choose GIF.”
Clearly, GIF, while the vast majority of us pronounce it with a hard G like “giddy,” was originally intended to be pronounced with a soft G like “gin.”
In fact, the hard G pronunciation is so accepted that when Wilhite himself pointed out it was a soft G, not a hard G, while accepting his Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, it set off an intense flurry of activity across social media and the internet as people debated the matter.
Meme Culture Saved the GIF
In the beginning, GIFs were largely just design flourishes. Flashing “Under Construction” signs on websites, blinking arrows, and that sort of thing. Shortly after the introduction of looping animated GIFs, however, the first viral GIFs appeared. The most notable early viral GIF was the “dancing baby” GIF, a CGI render turned into a GIF file that was quickly shared everywhere—even appearing as a recurrent character on the popular TV show Ally McBeal.
But as the web changed the GIF began to drift into annals of internet history. By the early-to-mid 2000s GIFs, as far as web design was concerned, were considered incredibly stale and on par with using the <blink> tag on text.
Despite languishing in relative obscurity for years, however, the GIF had a resurgence in the 2010s thanks to the rise of meme culture. Internet memes have been around for ages, of course, but it was during this period that sharing, resharing, and remixing GIF files as memes really took off. Suddenly the GIF wasn’t a stale old 1990s-era web design choice but a way to share jokes or encapsulate reactions into a few clever frames snagged from a movie, TV show, or even news report—and the rest is history. GIFs become big business with the popular GIF sharing service Giphy getting snapped up by Facebook for a cool $400 million in 2020.
From a simple push to optimize image delivery to a vehicle for sharing jokes and reactions, one thing is clear. Over three decades after its invention, the GIF is here to stay.
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