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Fingerfone

Photo courtesy of Lester Devine.

Fingerfones

By Lester Devine

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Originally trained as a secondary history teacher, a career long Adventist educator, Lester Devine, Ed.D., has taught at elementary, secondary and higher education levels and spent more than three decades in elected educational leadership positions in two divisions of the world Church, NAD (1969-1982) and SPD (1982-2005). He completed his forty years of denominational service with a term as director of the Ellen G. White/Adventist Research Centre at Avondale University College in Australia where his life-long hobby of learning and presenting on Adventist heritage issues became his vocation. 

A “fingerfone” is a small plastic gramophone which played vinyl 45 RPM records and was “finger driven.” It became a primary evangelistic tool in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere during the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1954 when Pastor Alexander Campbell was attending the forty-seventh session of the General Conference in San Francisco, Elder H. M. S. Richards Sr. introduced him to John E. Ford, the director of International Educational Recordings in California. The president of the organization was Frank Knight, brother of Pastor A. W. Knight.1 International Educational Recordings was utilizing a low-cost finger-driven gramophone which Campbell recognized as having the potential to provide recorded evangelistic messages in many different languages of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) mainland.2

Pastor Sid Stocken began experimenting with the metal "cake-tin" gramophones at Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands of PNG and realized that a very powerful evangelistic tool was within reach.3 The year was 1955.4 Meanwhile, Ford was in negotiations with Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to obtain permission to adapt a plastic, finger-driven, 45 RPM gramophone that the company had developed. It weighed just two pounds and was ideal for tropical conditions, inexpensive, and could be easily transported in great numbers on foot across the rugged terrain of PNG. John Ford obtained permission from RCA to use the plastic machines on a non-profit basis and in time made some necessary improvements. International Educational Recordings provided the machines and records to Papua New Guinea without charge.5 Ford had set up the program as a non-profit donation funded ministry.

The need for a resource such as this was made clear by Pastor Stocken: “The missionary's greatest obstacle is not the mountains, nor the trying distances over rivers and crags; but the constant language barrier that seems to defy the effort of any enthusiastic linguist. There are so many dialects in this land, and the grammatical constructions are so complex that unless the wonderful gift of tongues is given our missionary force, both native and European, we will be a long time reaching the hearts of these primitive people with the appeal of a crucified and risen Savior.”6

Fourteen scripts outlining basic Bible principles were prepared by Ford. Over time, Sid Stocken and others translated the scripts into forty PNG languages.

The languages recorded were:

1. Melanesian Pidgin

2. Agarabe

3. Auiana

4. Bena Bena

5. Moge

6. Kamano

7. Porei

8. Lufa

9. Orumpa

10. Kumul

11. Chimbu

12. Efogi — Moresby

13. Markham

14. Enga

15. Gadsup

16. Krankat — Madang

17. Panam

18. Motu — Moresby

19. Cabeofa

20. Yani

21. Taiora — Papua

22. Tari

23. Youie

24. Kanaka—Yani district

25. Gimmi

26. Delta

27. Kemanimoe

28. Vailala

29. Lagaria

30. Maprik — Sepik

31. Yangoru — Wewak

32. Bombieta — Wewak

33. Hagen

34. Wokeo — Schouten Islands

35. Ipi — Porgera

36. Avatip — Sepik

37. Bunguis — Sepik

38. Bosman-Nubia — Madang

39. Mugumat — Madang

40. Yaga — Lake Kopiago

A script containing principles of good health was later added. It warned of the dangers of smoking and betel nut chewing and encouraged personal hygiene.

After distributing the fingerfones and recordings for about a year, Stocken observed: “You would be thrilled beyond words to come with me into the restricted areas to see the people gather around and listen spellbound to the gospel message in their own language for the first time in their lives. The attention is most impressive, and their comprehension is 100 percent, as is proved by questioning them on what they have heard.”7

Missionaries such as Leonard Barnard, pioneer Adventist aviator in PNG, soon saw the almost unlimited possibilities of the fingerfones: "Two weeks ago I visited Mt. Hagen. Pastor Stocken lent me one of the gramophones with a set of records in Pidgin English. They made a great impression on the natives up there. We are looking forward to the time when we too shall have the privilege of receiving them from you people. These gramophones are going to mean a great thing for the natives in the work here in New Guinea. The work we can see can go ahead in leaps and bounds because God can bless the work of these boys with these gramophone records."8

Pastor J. B. Keith, the then president of the Coral Sea Union Mission was of a similar opinion, writing: “I am firmly convinced that God is richly blessing the gramophone work. I have had ample evidence of this, and I believe it is one of the simplest methods that God has ordained in reaching the multitudes of people back in the mountains and valleys." 9

Local Seventh-day Adventists were grateful that they had an evangelistic tool which was easily transportable, especially into un-entered and restricted territories.”10 The fingerfones seemed to appeal particularly to Adventist women and girls who took a strong lead in this ministry — unconventional though it was in the culture of the time.11 Significant was Tunako, a young laywoman in the Kamano language area of Papua New Guinea. While still very young, her people in time came to accept that a woman could do this work.

In 1956 Pastor Sid Stocken wrote, "When the record begins to play there is dead silence among the natives. The children and all listen intently. Gospel teaching by gramophone records is a success.”12 Later, Pastor Alwyn Campbell was to write, "We send this urgent request for 100 more gramophones and sets of records in the Wabag language. The machines you sent us are all in use and the call is for more. We are far short of meeting the needs. What we have are achieving their fine purpose in a very fine way. A strong call has come for a new worker down in the eastern end of my field because of the use of a gramophone down in that area."13

The program was not without its challenges. The records were easily scratched and when roughly handled had a relatively short life. The documents of the time suggested that keeping up the supply of needles was also a challenge. Subsequently, with the advent of cassette tape technology, Pastor Ray Coombe,14 with the assistance of his visiting father, Les Coombe in 1981, was able to obtain Pastor Stocken's master reel-to-reel tapes from International Educational Recordings in California and initiate the production of thousands of cassette tapes which were played on cheap battery powered players.15 Thus the witness of the original recordings continued for many years after the fingerfone itself was superseded.

The fingerfone and its successors have had an effective and powerful witness to the peoples of Papua New Guinea - and beyond.16 The seed sown with this simple technology is still bearing results with Papua New Guinea being the area of the most rapid growth for a number of years for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific.17

Sources

Campbell, A. J. “Baptisms and Weeping.” Australasian Record, July 30, 1956.

“General Statistics by Division for 2016: South Pacific Division.” 2017 Annual Statistical Report, Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2017.

“Gramophones Don’t ‘Gammon.’” Australasian Record, December 1, 1958.

“Gramophone Preachers Increase.” Australasian Record, December 16, 1956.

“Increasing Opportunities of Gospel per Gramophone.” Australasian Record, November 19, 1956.

International Educational Recordings Newsletter, May 1956, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

International Educational Recordings Newsletter, November 1956, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

International Educational Recordings Newsletter, January/February 1958, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

International Educational Recordings Newsletter, April, 1958, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

International Educational Recordings Newsletter, August/September 1958, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

“New Appliance Speeds the Gospel.” Australasian Record and Advent World Survey, May 30, 1955.

“PR and Radio Secretary . . .” Australasian Record, February 4, 1963.

Stocken, S. A. “How Missionaries Multiply Themselves in New Guinea.” Australasian Record, June 4, 1956.

Stocken, S. A. “More adventures of Gramophones.” Australasian Record, September 21, 1959.

Stocken, S. A. “Songs of Zion for the Children of Cannibals.” Australasian Record, July 11, 1955.

Notes

  1. “New Appliance Speeds the Gospel.” Australasian Record and Advent World Survey, May 30, 1955, 3.

  2. A. J. Campbell, “Baptisms and Weeping.” Australasian Record, July 30, 1956.

  3. S. A. Stocken, “Songs of Zion for the Children of Cannibals,” Australasian Record, July 11, 1955, 3.

  4. “New Appliance Speeds the Gospel,” 3.

  5. Ibid.

  6. S. A. Stocken, “How Missionaries Multiply Themselves in New Guinea,” Australasian Record, June 4, 1956, 4-5.

  7. “Increasing Opportunities of Gospel per Gramophone.” Australasian Record, November 19, 1956, 2.

  8. International Educational Recordings Newsletter, April, 1958, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

  9. International Educational Recordings Newsletter, January/February 1958, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

  10. International Educational Recordings Newsletter, November 1956, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

  11. “Increasing Opportunities,” 2.

  12. International Educational Recordings Newsletter, May 1956, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

  13. Ibid.

  14. International Educational Recordings Newsletter, August/September 1958, South Pacific Division Heritage Centre, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

  15. Raymond Coombe, interview with author, July 22, 2002, Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia.

  16. “Gramophones Don’t ‘Gammon,’” Australasian Record, December 1, 1958, 2-3.

  17. “General Statistics by Division for 2016: South Pacific Division,” 2017 Annual Statistical Report, (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2017), 22-23.

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Devine, Lester. "Fingerfones." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 09, 2021. Accessed October 15, 2021. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=A7W1.

Devine, Lester. "Fingerfones." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 09, 2021. Date of access October 15, 2021, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=A7W1.

Devine, Lester (2021, January 09). Fingerfones. Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved October 15, 2021, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=A7W1.